SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
Michael Sheetz | CNBC
The Federal Aviation Administration for a fourth time delayed its environmental review of SpaceX’s Starship rocket program in Texas, pushing a decision to the end of May.
SpaceX needs a license from the FAA to conduct further Starship flight tests and begin operational launches from its private facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The FAA, which began its environmental review in November 2020, delayed making a decision three previous times in the past five months – from Dec. 31 to Feb. 28. to Mar. 28 to Apr. 29 – and now expects to release the assessment on May 31.
“The FAA is working toward issuing the final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) … SpaceX made multiple changes to its application that require additional FAA analysis. The agency continues to review around 18,000 general public comments,” the regulator said in a statement.
Starship is the nearly 400-foot tall, reusable rocket that SpaceX has been developing, with the goal of creating a vehicle that can carry cargo and groups of people beyond Earth. The rocket and its Super Heavy booster are powered by SpaceX’s Raptor series of engines.
SpaceX has completed multiple high-altitude flight tests with Starship prototypes, but its next major step is to reach space. While that milestone was expected to be reached last year, development progress has been delayed. The orbital flight test is also pending regulatory approval.
In February, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave a presentation on Starship at the company’s Starbase facility in Texas, outlining the path forward and obstacles for the rocket’s testing.
At the time, Musk said that SpaceX had a “rough indication that there may ben approval in March.” But, in lockstep with the FAA’s delays, Musk since said he hoped SpaceX would be able to launch the first Starship orbital flight in May – which, following Friday’s FAA update, is now pushed to no earlier than June.
One consideration for Musk and SpaceX is what the company would do with its Starship development program if the FAA decides a more in-depth assessment is required. In that scenario, which would likely mean a launch hiatus from Starbase for additional years, Musk has said that moving Starship operations to Florida’s Cape Canaveral would be the most likely alternative. Already, SpaceX has begun building a launchpad for Starship on the grounds of Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which SpaceX leases from the agency.
“Worst-case scenario is that we would … be delayed for six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch [Starship] from there,” Musk said in February.
The regulator’s continuing review represents another item on Musk’s diverse plate of projects, with the billionaire this week selling more than $8 billion worth of Tesla stock as he works to take Twitter private.
Prototypes of SpaceX’s Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster stand at the company’s Starbase facility in Texas.
Michael Sheetz | CNBC