The FAA is currently seeking public comment for SpaceX’s filing for approval to launch the Starship rocket in Texas. If approved, SpaceX could begin flying its Starship and a two-stage variant known as the Starship Super Heavy from its facility under construction in Boca Chica.
“SpaceX proposes to conduct Starship/Super Heavy launch operations from the Boca Chica Launch Site in Cameron County, Texas. The proposed operations would include suborbital launches and/or orbital launches,” says an official statement on the FAA website. The filing also covers “tank tests, static fire engine tests, expansion of the vertical launch area (VLA) and solar farm, and construction of additional infrastructure.”
It may be some time before Starship becomes operational, partly due to delays in its development. Most recently, the Starship prototype SN8 exploded upon landing during a launch test that SpaceX considers mostly successful. Tests for the Starship rocket will continue with the already-built SN9 and SN10.
SpaceX may simply be accounting for the plodding pace of regulatory bureaucrats with its seemingly early filing.
Musk has previously expressed frustration with the slow progress of Canada’s consideration of Starlink’s Internet service. Canadian regulators have approved the delivery of Starlink’s service, but due to bureaucratic slowdowns, have not yet approved the establishment of ground stations.
This limits the operation of Starlink to the very southern part of Canada and leaves out Canadians living farther north, in less populous regions that traditional Internet service providers may not have bothered investing in. This has caused complaints not only from SpaceX personnel, but also Canadians who would benefit the most from access to faster satellite Internet like what Starlink could deliver once its constellation is complete.
As far as Starship is concerned, the process may be especially held up by the FAA’s requirement of an environmental assessment that will determine the impact of SpaceX’s plans on the local environment. Such a thing may not be one of Musk’s strong points, considering that a German court has recently ruled against Tesla in a case brought by environmentalists that will impact Tesla’s plans for Gigafactory Berlin. The ruling was partly due to Tesla’s failure to file paperwork detailing plans to mitigate its environmental impact on the region.
Once it does become operational, Starship will be capable of anything from point-to-point flights on Earth to launching payloads to other worlds like the Moon and Mars. Starship is especially in the running for NASA’s plans to return to crewed lunar flights with its Artemis program. A variant of Starship will be capable of vertical landings on the Moon and relaunching from the lunar surface.
Musk has indicated that Starship could technically begin flying to Mars in as little as four years, which aerospace insiders have called amazingly ambitious. Such ambitions are typical for Musk, who is especially well-known for presenting nearly impossible timelines that end up slipping.
In the meantime, Musk plans to begin testing for the Super Heavy in as little as “a few months.” Like the Starship, this will begin with low-altitude “hop” tests that are likely to go up to a few hundred meters. If approved by the FAA, the tests could make use of both of SpaceX’s launchpads in Boca Chica.
The public can email comments on SpaceX’s plans to the FAA by January 22, 2021. Even with the slowness of the process, it is unlikely that FAA bureaucrats will read every single comment and may skip over ones that are irrelevant to the actual approval of SpaceX’s plans to launch Starship and Super Heavy rockets at its facility in Boca Chica.