WASHINGTON — A SpaceX executive used a Senate hearing to express frustration with the slow pace of launch licensing reviews that is holding up the next flight of the company’s Starship vehicle.
At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee Oct. 18, Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said the next Starship vehicle is ready for flight but is on standby waiting for an updated launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Starship has been ready for its next flight test for more than a month, but we are waiting for an FAA license and accompanying interagency review,” he said in his opening remarks. “The Office of Commercial Space Transportation, known as AST, must recognize where the industry is, where the industry is going and its role in regulating this emerging industry.”
The company is continuing additional tests on the vehicle, including recently stacking the Starship upper stage on its Super Heavy booster. Gerstenmaier said the company was planning a fueling test and practice countdown, known as a wet dress rehearsal, in the coming days.
“We’re doing that just because we have the time,” he told reporters after the hearing. “We get the wet dress for free when we load for launch, but if we’re not going to get the launch license, it’s to our advantage to load now and reduce that risk.”
“This is super hard because we have an unknown timeframe for when we’re going to get the license,” he said. Engineers find additional work to do on the vehicle, he noted, “but when we don’t know what the timeframe is, we don’t know how much work to do.”
He said the company is “trying to lean forward” with launch preparations, including maritime notices for potential launches that require two weeks of advance notice. “I can’t stay in limbo forever.”
In an interview last month, Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, who leads AST, said he expected the FAA would close out its review of actions SpaceX must take from the previous Starship launch related to public safety by late October. That will be a key milestone towards updating the launch license.
However, he noted then that the license will also depend on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s review of the environmental effects of changes to the launch pad, including a water deluge system intended to minimize the damage from the first launch. While Coleman said he hoped that would be concluded “somewhere in proximity” to the safety review, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said last month that it could take up to 135 days to perform that assessment.
While Gerstenmaier told reporters that the FAA is “trying as hard as it can” and endorsed giving AST more resources, in his testimony he called on that agency and others to adopt a different mindset to licensing reviews.
“AST’s role is to protect public safety, not to ensure success of rocket launches,” he said in his opening remarks. “Safe failure and rapid learning are often the fastest path to successful development.”
He argued that was particularly true for national priorities, like the Artemis program. SpaceX is developing a version of Starship as a lunar lander that will fly on Artemis 3, the first crewed landing of the program, and at the hearing he warned delays in its development linked to licensing could mean that China would land humans on the moon first.
“When it comes to projects of national interest, such as the Artemis program, Congress should establish a regulatory regime consistent with the national program’s objectives and schedules. Other government agencies that participate in AST licensing, like those with environmental responsibilities, should also be required to complete their work consistent with the national program schedules,” he said.
Gerstenmaier said that SpaceX was trying to pursue an “aggressive test program” for Starship. “With that approach, it’s important that we go fly as soon as we can. The hardware is really ready to go fly. When we have regulatory delays, such as we’re facing right now, that slows down developmental test flights and ultimately slows down our support to NASA, slows down our support for what we need to do to return humans back to the surface of the moon again.”
He declined to say when the lunar lander Starship would be ready “at AST’s current speed” of licensing when asked by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), ranking member of the Commerce Committee. “It’s hard to say,” Gerstenmaier said. “To be fair, we also have huge technical challenges.” Those challenges, he said, argued for a rapid test flight program.
Gerstenmaier told reporters he did not directly feel pressure from NASA to accelerate testing of Starship. “If we want to be a leader in space, I feel an unbelievable pressure to fly as soon as we can fly and learn as much as we can. So, we’re trying to move. We’ve got a lot of challenges in front of us to meet to requirements we received from NASA. The only way we can get there is by flying.”