The FAA previously said that it would have a decision on approving SpaceX’s orbital test of the Starship / Super Heavy stack by the end of February. Now it says it is delaying its decision until March 28.
It cited a required environmental review, the number of public comments it received, and consultations with other regulatory agencies as reasons for the delay. It received more than 19,000 comments on the draft version of the review.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that the company is only waiting on FAA approval to conduct the test. It already has the prototype ready for the orbital test, which will launch from its test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, and land just off the coast of Hawaii.
SpaceX originally planned to conduct the orbital test over the summer of 2021. However, the test kept getting pushed back due to delays in the FAA approval process. Most of the issue might have been sparked by local environmentalist groups who expressed concern about the impact of rocket testing at the Boca Chica facility on local wildlife habitats. They especially brought up SpaceX’s alleged impact on the local bird population. Others defended SpaceX’s actions, saying that there have been no human injuries or fatalities even when things blew up.
Boca Chica residents also expressed concern about SpaceX’s impact on the local community. It has been accused of harassing residents who refused to sell it their homes and exceeding its maximum approved hours for closing local roads and beaches. SpaceX disputed both allegations and says that its beach and road closures were far less than the 300 allowed hours.
The closures are normally for safety reasons in case a rocket fails mid-flight and sends debris flying or a ground test goes wrong. Since SpaceX’s security guards were accused of improperly turning back vehicles along the road closest to the facility, it has since suggested that Texas’ Cameron County transfer ownership of a road that runs past the test facility over to SpaceX.
Musk previously expressed frustration with the FAA for “borking” or delaying high-altitude tests for Starship. After four explosions in a row, it ironed out some issues with the Raptor engines and finally nailed the high-altitude test with SN15. The tests involved launching and landing the prototypes. Most of the mishaps happened during or shortly after landing.
SpaceX is currently considering moving Starship-related activities to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It is already working on a launchpad for the operational version of the Starship / Super Heavy stack and might develop additional infrastructure for Starship tests if things don’t go as planned in Boca Chica.
SpaceX plans to use Starship for Musk’s plans to transport cargo and people to Mars. It already has contracts with the U.S. Air Force to use Starship for transportation of cargo around the world and NASA to use a Starship-derived lunar lander to land crews on the Moon for the Artemis Program. Once Starship gets off the ground, it could launch as often as once a week.