Just a few days after SpaceX chief Elon Musk said he hoped to see the next-generation Starship rocket take its first orbital flight in May, an issue has cropped up that has the potential to delay the plan.
SpaceX is waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to grant it permission to launch the rocket from its site in Boca Chica, Texas.
A decision was supposed to be published at the end of 2021, but the agency said it was taking longer than expected to complete the necessary work and ended up pushing the date to February, then to the end of this month.
But now the FAA says it plans to reveal its decision on April 29.
The FAA says it needs more time to conduct a review covering various issues linked to the launch. It includes the evaluation of “overflight of populated areas and payload contents; national security or foreign policy concerns; insurance requirements for the launch operator; and potential environmental impact.”
In line with federal law, the review invites members of the public to offer their views. The response appears to have been overwhelming, as the FAA keeps saying it needs more time assess the large number of comment. Various consultations and discussions also need to be completed.
If the FAA offers SpaceX launch clearance at the end of April, then it’s possible the spaceflight company will be able to stick with its latest predicted launch date some time in May.
But if the FAA fails to give SpaceX the permit it requires, Musk said the Starship will have to be moved to a launch site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, around 1,000 miles to the east, action that could result in the launch date slipping beyond May.
The Starship — comprising the first-stage Super Heavy booster and the upper-stage Starship spacecraft — is capable of more thrust than any rocket built up to now. NASA is hoping to use the launch vehicle for crewed missions to the moon, Mars, and possibly beyond.
But first the Starship has to be tested.
The debut flight will see the Super Heavy rocket lift the Starship spacecraft to orbit. Both sections will come down in the ocean, with the spacecraft splashing down in the Pacific about 90 minutes after lift-off.
Future launches will involve Super Heavy and Starship returning to Earth and performing upright landings — similar to how SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket functions for crewed missions to the ISS and satellite launches — so that the vehicle’s components can be deployed for multiple missions.
Now all eyes are on April 29, when the FAA is expected to finally reveal the long-awaited result of its lengthy review.
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