Elon Musk is hopeful Texas site will clear approval for Starship’s first orbital launch
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says he’s hopeful that his company’s launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas, will receive regulatory approval to launch by March and that the first orbital launch of SpaceX’s new Starship rocket will take place sometime this year.
Musk made these comments during his first presentation on Starship since 2019, which he gave last night at the company’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Standing in front of a full stacked prototype of the rocket that towered high over the stage, Musk provided an overview of some of the latest specs of the vehicle, why he wants to pursue deep space travel, and when he expects to make all these plans happen.
It was his fifth presentation on Starship overall, with Musk talking for more than an hour on Thursday night. However, the CEO didn’t provide any major new updates on Starship that he hadn’t already divulged before. Some new details came in during the event’s question and answer session regarding projected costs and future flight plans. But for the hardcore SpaceX fan, it was more or less a rehash of what Musk has talked about before. The timing seemed well-calculated, considering the Federal Aviation Administration is on the verge of deciding whether to clear Starship to launch to orbit from Boca Chica.
“Life can’t just be about solving problems,” Musk said about why the pursuit of interplanetary travel is worthwhile. “There have to be things that inspire you, that move your heart.” It’s a justification he’s used in the past.
Starship is SpaceX’s massive next-generation rocket, designed to take passengers and cargo to deep space destinations like the Moon and Mars. A completely reusable system, the spaceship is meant to launch to space on top of a giant booster rocket called the Super Heavy. Using its primary Raptor engines, Starship will be able to land on the surfaces of other worlds as well as back on Earth. The Super Heavy booster will also be able to land back on Earth after launching.
Perhaps the biggest topic that journalists wanted to know about was where SpaceX stood in getting its launch license from the FAA. The FAA is currently deciding whether to grant SpaceX approval to launch Starship out of Boca Chica, as the agency is responsible for ensuring that launches to orbit do not pose a hazard to uninvolved people or property. While the approval process has been highly polarizing, with some environmentalists contending that the FAA needs to conduct a more in-depth review of Starship’s impacts on the surrounding area, Musk indicated that he thought the decision would go in SpaceX’s favor. “We don’t have a ton of insight into the way things stand with the FAA,” Musk said. “We have gotten sort of a rough indication that there may be an approval in March.”
The Verge reached out to the FAA for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.
SpaceX has actively been developing Starship for the last few years now out of the company’s launch site in Boca Chica. At the site, located just north of the border, SpaceX engineers have been pumping out prototype after prototype while conducting various tests with the vehicles. So far, the company has conducted a handful of high-altitude flights with the prototypes, launching them to more than 32,000 feet above the Earth before attempting to land them back down on the ground again. The goal was to test out Starship’s ability to use its engines to gently touch down on Earth, a type of landing technique it will eventually use when landing on other worlds. Out of all of those tests, SpaceX successfully landed only one prototype that didn’t explode afterward.
Now, SpaceX is squarely focused on launching Starship to orbit to prove that the vehicle can actually make it to space. While SpaceX still may have more work to do on Starship to ready it for launch, a big roadblock standing in the rocket company’s way is regulatory approval. And the FAA’s decision-making process has been fraught with turmoil, as SpaceX’s plans for Boca Chica have significantly expanded in recent years.
The FAA cleared SpaceX to launch out of Boca Chica back in 2014, even prepping a full environment impact statement, or EIS, to detail how the launch site would affect the surrounding area and wildlife refuge. But that approval was decided back when SpaceX planned to launch its smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from the area. Now that SpaceX wants to launch Starship from Boca Chica, the FAA has to determine if the company can go ahead and launch to orbit regularly, if changes need to be made to the site, or if a new EIS is needed. The latter option would take a significant amount of time as the FAA consults with more experts and gathers more data about SpaceX’s footprint at Boca Chica and its potential impacts on the surrounding environment.
The FAA has said that it plans to make a decision by the end of February, making the timing of Musk’s talk a bit more relevant, perhaps as a way to put pressure on the FAA. SpaceX is really banking on being able to launch from the Boca Chica site, which the company has dubbed Starbase. Musk argued that the remote site allows SpaceX to conduct more experimental flights than the company’s other primary launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida. “Because we have had a lot of launches going out of the Cape, we didn’t want to disrupt the Cape activity, the operational launches, with sort of the advanced R&D of Starship,” Musk said. “So it was important to decouple the operational launches from the R&D launches.”
Musk did note that if the FAA didn’t grant immediate approval for Starbase, SpaceX could use the Cape in the future. “We do have the alternative of the Cape, Musk said. “And we actually applied for environmental approval for launch from the Cape a few years ago and received it.” He noted that the worst-case scenario would be that SpaceX would be delayed up to eight months as the company developed a launch tower for the Cape so that Starship could take off there.
Even if Starbase does receive approval, it’s unclear when SpaceX will actually be ready to launch. Musk said he’s “highly confident” Starship will reach orbit this year and that SpaceX hopes to launch its first orbital attempt once the company gets the FAA’s approval. But he provided few concrete details on recent progress developing Starship’s hardware. “I think we’re close to having the hardware ready to go,” Musk said. “So right now, I think we’re tracking to have the regulatory approval and hardware readiness around the same time.”