The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved the next three launches for SpaceX’s Starship prototype. Typically, the FAA has only approved one test launch at a time, but has approved these three in a batch because it was satisfied with SpaceX’s changes to the new prototypes and attention to safety measures. If all goes as planned SpaceX could launch the SN15 prototype within the next couple of days.
The FAA requires that SpaceX have an inspector on site at the Boca Chica, Texas, test facility during test launches. This has occasionally caused annoyance for the company, which had to delay a test flight in March because the inspector was late. The FAA has stated that inspectors are on their way for the upcoming test flight.
The prototypes SN8, SN9, and SN10 all exploded upon landing during their first and only test flights. SN11 initially put in what looked like a successful landing, and then appeared to go through a “mini-launch” that ended in an explosion. The loss of SN11 was likely due to remaining propellant in the tanks escaping through the engines. The changes to SN15 and its array of Raptor engines are based on data from the past test flights.
The FAA opened an investigation into possible safety issues related to these high-altitude test flights even though nobody was injured, much to the annoyance of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who has tweeted that the FAA seems ill-suited for regulating space-related activities and is woefully unprepared for the rapid iterations and fast pace of innovation in the aerospace field. The primary issue is the potential of field blast overpressure that can shatter windows in residential buildings if it is strong enough. The FAA stated that the investigation is still ongoing, but it is satisfied that SpaceX has addressed any potentially lingering safety issues.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives has also called for a Congressional investigation into possible regulatory violations. A letter from House of Representatives Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen expressed disappointment that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the recent losses of full-sized prototypes.
SpaceX plans to use its Starship rockets and spacecraft for journeys to other worlds in the inner solar system such as the Moon and Mars. It has already won a contract from NASA to use its Starship-derived Human Landing System for lunar landings for the Artemis Program, although rival Blue Origin and a third competitor called Dynetics have filed objections.
SpaceX has said that Starship will be capable of providing point-to-point passenger flights on Earth, though this could be seen as a premium service with little time for even having an onboard snack and beverage service. (“Anywhere to anywhere in 90 minutes or less!”) Musk has also unveiled plans to use Starship to help address the “space junk” problem by removing old satellites and rocket stages that would be incapable of deorbiting on their own.
Talking about future operations once Starship becomes operational is easy. Landing the prototypes and keeping them in one piece is hard. With the FAA’s approval, though, SpaceX now has a chance to show that the improvements to the SN15 prototype is sufficient to keep it in one piece and avoid the overpressure problem that was the regulatory agency’s primary concern.
Is Elon Musk nervous? Well, as seen in the below video, he has admitted that he finds it hard to sleep before a SpaceX launch, let alone during tests of Starship prototypes that have previously proven so explosive.