On the 17th of September, the FAA released their draft environmental assessment on operations at Starbase and signaled their intent to approve future operations of Super Heavy. This news could not have come at a more exciting time for SpaceX, with the recent success of the Inspiration4 mission and the start of preflight testing for Flight 420 (Booster 4, Ship 20). It feels as if the next generation of spaceflight is just around the corner.
The next step for the draft environmental assessment is to allow for some time for the public to provide feedback on the report. Elon Musk also tweeted out a request for positive support for the Starship program. Once the period of public comments expires, the FAA will work with SpaceX and other expert parties to mitigate any valid concerns made. Although this report has been a long time in the works, with the initial public scoping period conducted between December 2020 and January 2021.
A request for public support of the Starbase plans. Source: Elon Musk
Since that time, SpaceX has landed a Starship Prototype (Ship 15) and has since shifted its focus to Super Heavy and re-entry tests of Starship. In table 2-2 of page 14, SpaceX proposes 20 suborbital Starship operations during the development phase of the program. At the time of submission, this would have reflected the fact they had yet to land a Starship vehicle. The report also shows a version of the system where the Booster still has legs, but in fairness to the FAA, even SpaceX still uses this current appearance of the system on their website.
In contrast, they have requested only 3 orbital launches (using both Ship and Booster) during the development phase, increasing to 5 orbital launches when fully operational. Now to provide some context, SpaceX currently has lunar crewed missions for 2023 and 2024. To achieve this timeline, the amount of flight time for both vehicles has to grow substantially, and with the time taken to develop launch and landing infrastructure, no location can be made available in time.
Initially, though, this would appear to support SpaceX’s high iteration plans for both the Booster and Starship. During an interview with Tim Dodd, Elon mentions the intent to retire and potentially scrap the first successful vehicles that re-enter and land successfully. This is due to the expectation that the next versions will be even better than before due to the experience and knowledge gained from each successive flight.
Of course, this high iteration period will come to an end once the design and production of both vehicles have improved. At this point, the low number of orbital launches will become painfully clear, although it is expected that SpaceX will have already started the process to increase the proposed orbital operations following the first few orbital tests of the vehicle.
Something that the FAA deserves credit for in this draft environmental assessment, is the programmatic approach. This approach allows future reviews and revisions to tier off of this report, focusing solely on the changes that the newer proposed actions would incur. This in theory should reduce the amount of work, time taken, and resources used by all parties involved. This specifically will benefit SpaceX as they continue to develop the system and make significant changes that best suit the vehicle and the overall mission the company has of colonizing Mars.
Starbase, Texas. Source: FAA Environmental Review
Looking forward to the immediate future of Starbase, it is clear that SpaceX is ramping things up with the imminent preflight testing of Flight 420, the construction of flight vehicles for Flight 521, and the expansion of the shipyard to support a higher cadence of vehicle assembly. The FAA understands the intent of the program and although underfunded and in need of more support, they appear to have done their best in working with an extremely agile company and ever-evolving plans of the Starship program.
If you want to add your support for the continued development of Starbase and the space industry in Texas, please send your comments to SpaceXBocaChica@icf.com before October 18th, 2021.
The FAA report can be viewed in its entirety here: https://www.faa.gov/space/stakeholder_engagement/spacex_starship/media/Draft_PEA_for_SpaceX_Starship_Super_Heavy_at_Boca_Chica.pdf
Supporting images for the report can be found here: https://www.faa.gov/space/stakeholder_engagement/spacex_starship/media/Appendix_F_Viewshed_Supporting_Images.pdf