SpaceX has been targeting July for the first orbital flight of its gargantuan Starship system, which will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever created — and, the company hopes, will eventually take humans to Mars. But the company is not likely to hit that goal, CNN Business has learned.
SpaceX’s Starship launch operations are the subject of an ongoing environmental assessment. Depending on the outcome of that assessment it may also be required to go through a more detailed review culminating in an updated Environmental Impact Statement. Only after that process is complete can the Federal Aviation Administration move on to licensing a possible orbital Starship launch.
Those reviews and approvals will not be done in time for an early July launch, according to a source familiar with the licensing process.
That means that, for SpaceX to remain in compliance with federal rules, it will likely have to push back its target launch date.
So far, the company has only flown various early prototypes of the upper spacecraft portion of Starship. Those tests have all been relatively low-speed test “hops,” which involve the vehicles flying a few miles into the air before attempting to land upright. Only one landing in five such test flights conducted to this point has been successful.
An orbital launch would require a similar Starship spacecraft to be stacked on top of what SpaceX is calling its “Super Heavy” booster, a behemoth envisioned at 230 feet tall which has for years existed in various renderings and design mockups but has yet to be fully assembled or launched.
SpaceX laid out its flight plans for Starship’s first-ever orbital mission in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission that was posted last month. The company intends to launch Starship atop the Super Heavy rocket booster from its South Texas facilities before the booster separates and comes back in for a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico about eight minutes later.
The upper Starship spacecraft will continue through orbit, burning its engines for roughly nine minutes. About an hour and a half after that, it would dive back into the Earth’s atmosphere and make a splashdown in the Pacific, about 60 miles from the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The document did not give a proposed flight date, though it did list a “requested period of operation” for between June 20 and December 20 of 2021.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed in a March 16 tweet that the company was targeting July for the first orbital launch, following a NASASpaceflight report that the company’s internal target date was July 1.
Another indication of the early July target came on Monday, when Northwestern University aired a taped commencement speech from SpaceX chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell. Briefly visible in the background of Shotwell’s speech, which was filmed at SpaceX’s headquarters, was a screen that read “Starship Orbital Launch” with a countdown that said “25 days, 7 hours, 30 minutes.”
Twenty-five days from Monday, when the speech aired for Northwestern students, would be July 9, though it’s unclear when Shotwell recorded the commencement speech.
SpaceX’s plans for an imminent launch go beyond documentation and filings, however. The company also appears to be making headway constructing the kind of large launch tower that would be required to support such an orbital launch. Photos taken by fans at SpaceX’s South Texas facility and shared on social media show a massive crane assembling a metal tower that closely resembles launch towers like those at government launch facilities in Florida.
Musk did share an early morning update on Twitter Tuesday, confirming that SpaceX is continuing to piece together the first Super Heavy booster at its facilities in South Texas.
The final version of the upper Starship spacecraft is expected to contain six rocket engines, while the Super Heavy booster could have nearly 30, giving the rocket more than 16 million pounds of thrust. That’s more than twice the total thrust output of NASA’s Saturn V rocket, which powered the mid-20th century moon landings, and for decades has held the record for the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.
SpaceX is known to set aggressive target dates for major test launches, and to blow past them. It’s common in aerospace for design and development of new spacecraft to take far longer than initially anticipated.
But SpaceX has been particularly aggressive with its Starship testing schedule, angling to rapidly conduct test flights in order to collect data rather than taking the more traditional approach of thoroughly vetting a spacecraft’s design and putting it through numerous ground tests before putting it on a launch pad.
The pace at which the company has moved in South Texas has previously run afoul of federal regulators: A suborbital test flight in December of a prototype dubbed “SN8” was carried out despite the FAA’s having denied a waiver SpaceX sought allowing it “to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations,” according to a previous statement from the FAA.
That matter has since been resolved, allowing the company to move forward with suborbital testing of its Starship spacecraft prototypes.
But approval for an orbital launch hinges on whether federal regulators can determine that the Super Heavy booster, which packs many times the amount of power as the spacecraft portion alone, can launch from South Texas without posing a significant threat to nearby property, people or the surrounding environment.