FAA Nixes Future Starship Launches Until SpaceX Meets Conditions

FAA put a pause on future launches of Starship prototypes until SpaceX turns in a mishap investigation report.

“The FAA will not allow a return to flight operations until it determines that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety or any other aspect of the operator’s license,” an FAA spokesperson told media outlets.

SpaceX’s first attempt at an orbital test for the Starship/Super Heavy stack ended in a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly minutes after launch. The event may have scattered debris miles away, causing concern about public safety, potentially toxic materials, and its effect on the local environment.

It also caused severe damage to the launchpad. Some of the alleged debris that might have come from the launchpad turned out to be sand from the beaches closest to the test facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

Soon after the abortive test, Elon Musk said SpaceX could try again in as little as 6 to 8 weeks. That typically optimistic timeline could have assumed that the FAA wouldn’t have something to say about it. However, that does not mean SpaceX is wasting time. Since then, it has made many changes to Starship/Super Heavy and conducted static fire tests for its remaining Starship prototypes.

SpaceX is working on making the launchpad better able to handle the flames and force coming from the rocket stack, which will be the largest operational rocket to ever exist once it’s ready to start carrying cargo and people on live missions. This includes adding a fire suppression system that it recently conducted a full-pressure test for.

However, CNBC reporters now allege that SpaceX did not obtain required environmental permits for the fire suppression system, which is designed to release a deluge of water to control the flames and noise of rocket launches. The apparent concern is that the amount of water released and anything dissolved in that water could impact the local environment, including any area wetlands.

Texas state regulators confirmed that SpaceX had not applied for a Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (TPDES) permit. However, they say they are discussing the matter with SpaceX. Permits similar to TPDES are often used for flame suppression systems like the ones that were once used by the Space Shuttle. A deluge of water is a common method for limiting the launchpad’s exposure to the heat and stress of rocket launches. However, it could come with the release of chemicals dissolved in the water that could degrade the local water supply if the water is not treated as required by permits like TPDES.

Clashes with local environmental groups seem to be a common theme for SpaceX’s Boca Chica test facility. Most recently, environmentalists filed a lawsuit alleging that the FAA was hasty in approving the test launch despite the process taking nearly two years. The FAA and SpaceX asked the presiding judge to dismiss the case.

Meanwhile, the FAA, NASA, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating the incident. The FAA says it can close the investigation once SpaceX files the report.

SpaceX has proposed using the Starship/Super Heavy stack for a variety of applications, including providing transportation for future Martian settlers, launching large satellites, and rapidly delivering critical humanitarian supplies to any point on Earth. It currently has a contract with NASA to develop a Starship-derived lunar lander for the Artemis Program. Paying passengers are already lining up for trips around the Moon on Starship, including “space tourist” and aerospace engineer Dennis Tito and Japanese businessman Yuzaku Maezawa.