Super Heavy Raptors
SpaceX released an image Aug. 2 showing the base of a Super Heavy booster with all 29 Raptor engines installed. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — The unstoppable force of SpaceX’s recent surge in development of its Starship vehicle for its first orbital flight is in danger of colliding with an immovable object: an ongoing environment review that has no clear end date.

SpaceX has in recent weeks stepped up activity at its Boca Chica, Texas, test site, which the company calls Starbase, rushing to complete a Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage for the first orbital test flight of the vehicle.

The company has reportedly transferred hundreds of employees from its other facilities to Boca Chica to assist on that manufacturing surge. In recent days, that work has featured the installation of 29 Raptor engines in the base of the Super Heavy booster, which was rolled out to the launch site Aug. 3. The company also installed all six Raptor engines in the Starship vehicle known as “Ship 20,” including three vacuum variants with extended nozzles.

“Starbase is moving at Warp 9,” Musk tweeted July 31, showing images of construction of the launch mount atop which Super Heavy and Starship would be placed. He has also released images of the completion of engine installation on both the Super Heavy booster, known as Booster 4, and Ship 20.

Starbase is moving at Warp 9

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 31, 2021

There are still likely weeks, if not months, of work before the vehicle will be ready for an orbital launch. Those activities range from fit checks of the vehicles on the pad to a series of static fire tests. SpaceX hasn’t announced a date for the launch, although in a Federal Communications Commission filing in May, the company said it was targeting a six-month period that started June 20. Those dates, however, can be amended.

That FCC filing outlined the plan for that orbital launch. The Super Heavy booster would fire for 169 seconds before the Starship vehicle separates. The booster would “land” in the Gulf of Mexico 32 kilometers offshore from Boca Chica. Starship would use its engines to go into orbit, but reenter after less than one orbit, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean 100 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

That launch can’t take place, though, until SpaceX receives a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration. That license is dependent on the completion of an environmental assessment of Starship/Super Heavy launches from Boca Chica currently underway.

The FAA has released few updates about the development of that assessment. However, even when complete, the draft version will be released for public comment, which would then be incorporated into the final version. Moreover, the report may recommend the FAA perform a more thorough environmental impact study, which would further delay any launch license.

An FAA spokesman said Aug. 3 that the agency doesn’t have a schedule for completing the environmental assessment. “SpaceX cannot launch Starship / Super Heavy until the FAA licensing process is completed, including the environmental review and any potential mitigations put in place,” the FAA added.

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...