Starship Musk
A fully stacked orbital Starship launch vehicle was the backdrop for Elon Musk's update on vehicle development Feb. 10 in Boca Chica, Texas. Credit: SpaceX webcast

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — SpaceX is prepared to shift testing of its Starship next-generation launch vehicle from Texas to Florida if there are extended delays in an ongoing environmental review, company founder and chief executive Elon Musk said Feb. 10.

In a long-awaited, and long-delayed, update about development of Starship at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site, Musk said he thought the Federal Aviation Administration would complete an environmental review and award SpaceX a launch license for Starship launches as soon as March.

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

The FAA said last fall that it expected to complete an environmental assessment of orbital launches of Starship from Boca Chica by the end of 2021. However, in late December the agency pushed back that deadline to Feb. 28, citing the large number of public comments and ongoing discussions with other federal agencies.

One potential outcome of that review, though, is to perform a more rigorous environmental impact statement (EIS), something that some individuals and organizations called for during the public comment period on the draft environmental assessment (EA) last fall. An EIS would take months, and potentially more than a year, to complete, putting any launch activity from Boca Chica on hold during that process.

“It would obviously set us back for quite some time because an EIS takes a lot longer than an EA, so we would have to shift our priorities to Cape Kennedy,” he said, a reference to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

SpaceX previously obtained environmental approvals for Starship launches from KSC, and the company has restarted work on a launch site for Starship at Launch Complex 39A, adjacent to the existing pad now used by Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

“I guess our worst-case scenario is that we would be delayed for six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there,” he said.

It’s unclear, though, whether the earlier environmental review for Starship at KSC would have to be updated to take into account the current configuration of the vehicle, which has evolved significantly since the completion of that review. Any Starship launches from Launch Complex 39A would also have to work around Falcon launches there and require coordination with NASA.

In the long run, though, Musk said SpaceX expects to use KSC as a major launch site for Starship and is building a factory there to produce those vehicles. Offshore platforms would also serve as launch sites, with SpaceX currently converting two oil rigs into such platforms that could be moved as needed.

At the event, Musk thanked residents of Brownsville and South Texas for their support of the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, called Starbase, but suggested that it might not be an active operational spaceport. “It’s well suited to be our advanced R&D location, where we would try out new designs and new versions of the rocket,” he said. KSC would be the “main operational launch site” along with offshore platforms.

Raptor development

The event, announced with just one week’s notice, was billed as the first major update by Musk on development of Starship since a similar event in Boca Chica in September 2019. A fully stacked vehicle, with the Starship upper stage on top of a Super Heavy booster, served as the backdrop for the 75-minute presentation.

Musk said that vehicle should be ready to launch if the FAA does award a license in March. “We’re tracking to have the regulatory approval and hardware readiness around the same time,” he said. “Basically, a couple months for both.” He did not go into details, though, about what is left to do on the vehicle to have it ready for launch.

There were few major updates about Starship during the event. Musk used much of the presentation to provide a general overview of the vehicle as well as reiterating his long-held desire to use it to make humanity multiplanetary by establishing a self-sustaining settlement on Mars. The presentation included a new video with a computer animation of a Starship mission to Mars.

One topic where Musk did offer new details was about development of the Raptor engine that powers Starship. The initial Super Heavy booster has 29 Raptor engines, with future boosters hosting 33, he said. The Starship vehicle has six Raptors but could later have nine.

SpaceX is now testing a revised design called Raptor 2, which he described as an “almost complete redesign” of the engine. The new version can produce at least 230 metric tons of thrust, compared to 185 metric tons of the initial model, and could later increase to as much as 250 metric tons.

The new version is also “greatly simplified” in its design, he said, and less expensive. “Raptor 2 costs about half as much as Raptor 1 despite having much more thrust and generally being a much easier engine to build and a more robust engine.”

Raptor engine production had been a concern for Musk. In November, he warned of a “production crisis” because of problems with engine development that were “quite frankly, a disaster.” He suggested the problems even threatened the company with bankruptcy if not corrected.

Musk sounded much more upbeat about Raptor at the Boca Chica event. “The production system has a lot of momentum,” he said, expecting to produce at least seven engines a week by March. “Those are crazy numbers for rocket engines.”

HLS work

Musk talked about using Starship for launches of the company’s Starlink satellites as well as the dearMoon circumlunar mission that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa announced in 2018. “There are some future announcements that I think people will be pretty fired up about,” he said.

Starship’s highest profile mission, though, is to land NASA astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972. NASA selected Starship last April for the Human Landing System (HLS) program, supporting development of a lander version of Starship that will take astronauts to the surface of the moon and back on the Artemis 3 mission, currently scheduled for no earlier than 2025.

Musk did not go into details about progress on the lander version of Starship but argued it should not interfere with the company’s development of Starship as a launch vehicle. “I don’t think there’s really a conflict there,” he said. “We’re going to be making a lot of ships, a lot of boosters.”

“Adding legs to land on the moon, that can be done pretty quickly,” he claimed. “A high production rate solves many ills.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...