FAA Delays SpaceX Starship Launch Due to Number of Comments

The FAA allows public comments as part of its review process for applications. One drawback: It could get way too many comments to make a timely decision on any particular application when people have a strong opinion about anything related to the topic at hand.

This issue has caused the FAA to delay its final decision in SpaceX’s application to launch a Starship prototype in an orbital test to at least February 2022. It needs more time to review the more than 18,000 comments it received.

The impact of test operations at SpaceX’s launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas, is one hot issue. On the environmental side, SpaceX’s operations may have had a negative effect on the local bird population. Environmentalists also complained about proposed expansions of the launch facility that could impact wildlife habitats that are important to sea turtles and a few local bird species. Eleven environmental groups signed a letter to the FAA asking them to review the environmental impact of the proposed expansion.

The company has also been accused of excessive closures of local roads and beaches. It denied the allegations and blamed incidents between at least one security guard and county officials on poor training for its security personnel.

SpaceX had originally planned to launch the first orbital flight of the Starship prototype, officially called SN20, over the summer of 2021. If all goes as planned, SN20 will launch from Boca Chica and splash down just off the Hawaiian coast for retrieval and analysis.

Regulatory red tape has caused most of the delays. The FAA has occasionally drawn criticism from Elon Musk, especially when the FAA delayed planned tests or stuck its nose in after a series of expensive losses of Starship prototypes in the first half of 2021.

The FAA says SpaceX is working on responses to most of the public comments. Despite environmentalists’ concerns, SpaceX does have its share of support from people who believe that Elon Musk’s ultimate goal of creating an effective interplanetary mass transit system and a significantly sized city on Mars might be worth a few compromises.

“There might be causes that might concern people, but we have to sometimes put those aside for the greater good,” said Nicholas Andrich, who frequently visits Boca Chica, during one FAA hearing on the potential environmental issues.

SpaceX plans to send as many as 1,000 Starship spacecraft to Mars with crew and cargo to establish its city on Mars. The company says each Starship will be capable of carrying up to 100 tons of cargo and 100 people to other worlds like the Moon and Mars. Starship derivatives include the Human Landing System that it is developing for NASA’s Artemis Program.

(And, yes, Elon Musk rival Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin did start a big legal fight over the Human Landing System. And lost.)

Elon Musk’s companies have established a significant presence in Texas. This includes SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility and a factory under construction that will produce SpaceX’s next-generation Starlink satellites. Tesla is also building a Gigafactory in the Austin area that will employ as many as 10,000 people and recently moved its headquarters from California to Texas.