Falcon 9 busier than ever as Starship reviews delayed again

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX had its busiest month yet in April in terms of launches as the company emphasizes the value of a high flight rate.

A Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 at 5:27 p.m. Eastern April 29 carrying a payload of 53 Starlink satellites. SpaceX confirmed a successful deployment of the satellites an hour after liftoff.

The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean, completing its sixth flight. The booster was last used just three weeks earlier on the launch of a Crew Dragon on the Ax-1 private astronaut mission to the International Space Station, a 21-day turnaround that was the shortest between flights to date.

That launch was the sixth by SpaceX in April, the most by the company in any single calendar month. The company has performed four launches in a month several times and five in December 2021. SpaceX has conducted 17 Falcon 9 launches so far this year, keeping the company on pace to meet a goal of one launch a week this year.

“Flight rate is really, really important,” Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said during a panel discussion at the AIAA ASCENDx Texas conference April 28. “Flight rate lets you learn, it lets you grow. You have to fly it correctly. You have to fly it safely.”

A key factor in that high flight rate is the company’s own Starlink constellation. While only two of the six launches in April were of Starlink satellites — the others were the Ax-1 and Crew-4 crewed missions, the Transporter-4 rideshare mission and the NROL-85 classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office — 10 of the 17 Falcon 9 launches so far this year have been for the deployment of the broadband constellation.

The Starlink launches, Reed said, are important for such things as pushing the limits of reusability. “It allows us to really learn and expand the envelope of what it takes to fly at a very high flight rate,” he said.

“This is the kind of flight rate that we need to be thinking about as an industry,” he added. “We should all look forward to the day soon when we are launching every day, every hour, every minute.”

Starship environmental delay

While SpaceX steps up its launch cadence, its Starship program remains mired in delays. The Federal Aviation Administration announced April 29 it was again pushing back the deadline for the completion of an environmental assessment for orbital launches of that vehicle from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site. The new deadline is now May 31, a one-month delay.

“SpaceX made multiple changes to its application that require additional FAA analysis,” the FAA said in a statement to reporters. “The agency continues to review around 18,000 general public comments.”

The FAA didn’t identify what changes SpaceX made and how they might affect the review of what is called a programmatic environmental assessment (PEA). “The FAA is finalizing the review of the Final PEA, including responding to comments and ensuring consistency with SpaceX’s licensing application,” a statement on the FAA website for the effort states. “The FAA is also completing consultation and confirming mitigations for the proposed SpaceX operations. All consultations must be complete before the FAA can issue the Final PEA.”

According to a “permitting dashboard” operated by the Department of Transportation, the assessment did complete one such consultation, involving an Endangered Species Act consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, April 22. Another consultation, called the Section 106 Review after its section of the National Historic Preservation Act, is scheduled to be completed in early May.

While this is the fourth time that the FAA has pushed back completion of the environmental assessment, originally scheduled for the end of 2021, it is not clear that this alone is delaying the first orbital launch of Starship. While SpaceX showed a fully stacked Starship vehicle in February in Boca Chica, neither the Super Heavy booster nor Starship upper stage displayed then are expected to fly as the company moved to testing other hardware, with no firm timeline of having a vehicle ready to flight.