SpaceX’s Starship faces more delays, as Dragon production ends

SpaceX's Starship: Rocket standing upright, with spacecraft at nose.
SpaceX’s starship prototype – SN15 – undergoing a cryogenic test in April 2021, at SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. Image via SpaceX.

SpaceX might be a step closer to moving its Super Heavy Project for development of the Starship heavy launch vehicle to Florida. This follows the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announcement last Friday (March 25, 2022) of yet another delay. It’s the fourth month-long delay in approval of operations at SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

The delay moves the date the FAA says it will release the final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of the Boca Chica facility from March 28 to April 29. In the announcement, FAA officials also said completion of the PEA is not the same as a final OK for Starbase operations. The FAA release states:

The completion of the environmental review process does not guarantee that the FAA will issue an experimental permit or vehicle operator license to SpaceX for Starship/Super Heavy launches at Boca Chica. SpaceX’s license application must also meet FAA safety, risk, and financial responsibility requirements per 14 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Chapter III.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said last month that SpaceX might move Starship’s development, as well as future launches of Starship – which is the largest spacecraft since the Saturn V – to Florida to avoid further delays.

Several upright rockets compared, with Starship standing tallest.
Comparison of super heavy-lift launch vehicles. Masses listed are the maximum payload to low Earth orbit in metric tons. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Musk: SpaceX’s Starship may launch from Florida in ‘worst-case scenario’

As indicated by remarks Musk made only a few weeks earlier at the SpaceX Starship Update Event on February 10, the agency’s action isn’t what Musk and the SpaceX leadership were expecting. And it may have caught them momentarily flat-footed. Musk said during the live video stream from Starbase, where he appeared in front of a Starship stacked to full height:

We don’t have a ton of insight into where things stand with the FAA. We have gotten sort of a rough indication that there may be an approval in March, but that’s all we know.

The SpaceX CEO then went on to muse on the possibility of suborbital flights of Starship from Boca Chica to Kennedy Space Center in Florida lasting less than 45 minutes. But these flights of fancy were not what Musk had in mind when he later described the company’s alternate plan. That plan requires moving the Starship development project to prevent it from stalling. He told the audience at Boca Chica that a more immediate land-based relocation of the enormous heavy-lift vehicles and their support and development infrastructure would only happen in a “worst-case scenario,” meaning a full environmental impact report becomes a requirement for operation in Texas. Musk also said during the Starship Update Event:

Now we do have the alternative of the Cape (Kennedy Space Center). We actually applied for environmental approval for launching from the Cape a few years ago and received it, so we actually are approved from an environmental standpoint to launch from (KSC Launch Complex) 39-A. So I guess our worst-case scenario is that we would– I don’t know if you’d be delayed for six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there.

SpaceX’s Starship ready to orbit by May

Another pair of announcements from SpaceX highlighted their urgency to get the first Starship beyond the blue. SpaceX issued the announcements before and after the news broke of the renewed FAA foot-dragging.

Four days before the newest delay, a tweet from Musk on March 21 announced Starship is a handful of weeks away from attempting a low-earth orbit:

No more Falcon manned capsule production

That may help put to rest the CEO’s private concern that SpaceX faced bankruptcy if engine production didn’t increase sufficiently to allow the company to fly Starship every other week in 2022, as Musk wrote in a widely-reported internal email he sent in late 2021.

On Monday, March 29, 2022, the news agency Reuters reported that SpaceX has ceased production of the Crew Dragon manned space capsule. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Reuters that the company intends to extend the usability of its four existing capsules through ongoing refurbishment. They will continue to manufacture parts for that purpose until the Starship line takes over manned launches, she said, and furthermore, the company maintains the capability to resume building the Crew Dragon should additional capsules be needed.

According to Reuters, the end of Crew Dragon production “adds more urgency” to the desire to get Starship flying, specifically since the craft has been pegged by NASA as the vehicle that will carry American astronauts – including the first woman and person of color – back to the moon.

The first two missions of the Artemis Plan will see the Orion spacecraft circle the moon after launching aboard NASA’s Space Launch System. However, when humans again set foot on the lunar surface, they will have ridden a Starship to get there, provided the current Earth-bound red tape can be cut.

Bottom line: SpaceX might be a step closer to moving its Super Heavy Project for development of the Starship heavy launch vehicle to Florida, following the Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement last Friday (March 25, 2022) of yet another delay.

March 30, 2022

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