SpaceX seeks a waiver to launch Starship “at least” nine times this year

SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy vehicle to perform the first 2024 orbital launch attempt once the FAA awards a license to the company. Credit: SpaceX

By Eric Berger,
Published by arsTechnica, 22 February 2024

As SpaceX nears its first Starship launch of 2024—possibly as soon as within three weeks—from its Starbase facility in South Texas, the company is pressing regulators to increase its cadence of flights.

During a press availability this week, the administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, Kelvin Coleman, said the agency is working with the company to try to facilitate the Starship launch-licensing process.

“They’re looking at a pretty aggressive launch schedule this year,” he said. “They’re looking at, I believe, at least nine launches this year. That’s a lot of launches. If you’re doing modifications and doing them one by one, that’s a lot of work. We’ve been talking to SpaceX constantly around the clock, coming together and trying to figure out how do we do this. We’re invested with the company, and so we’ll work with them to get them back going as soon as they can.”

After SpaceX decided to launch and attempt to land its Starship vehicle in Texas about five years ago, the company had to undergo an enhanced environmental review of the site. As a part of this process, the FAA completed a Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment in June 2022. Following that review, SpaceX received approval to conduct up to five Starship launches from South Texas annually. An FAA official confirmed to Ars that the company is seeking a modification of this five-launch limit to accommodate a higher flight rate.

Next launch, next month?

SpaceX launched its first Starship vehicle, which is the largest rocket ever built and is intended to eventually be fully reusable, in April 2023. That flight caused serious damage to the launch site near Boca Chica Beach and raised environmental concerns after it kicked up large chunks of concrete and dust into the surrounding wetlands. Coleman said the anomaly investigation and regulatory review process after that flight took about six months, which he believes is commensurate with the work involved.

The company’s second launch attempt in November was more successful, as the first-stage booster, Super Heavy, had a mostly nominal flight, and the Starship upper stage managed to separate from the booster before it experienced an anomaly and was lost. There was no damage on the ground this time. The work entailed by the FAA for this anomaly review was about one-third as much, Coleman said.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said his company is now targeting early to mid-March for the third launch attempt of Starship. This flight of the highly experimental vehicle, Musk said, has a reasonably good chance of successfully reaching orbit. Coleman said that, from a regulatory standpoint, that timeline sounds “about right.”

Staffing up

During congressional testimony last October, SpaceX Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability Bill Gerstenmaier said he wanted to see the US House and Senate provide more resources to the FAA for its licensing review processes. The number of US launches has grown from a few dozen per year to more than 100, and there is a multiplicity of new companies seeking regulatory approval for spaceflight activities. The agency expects to license more than 150 launches and reentries this year. Its primary task is to protect people and property on the ground from spaceflight hazards.

“Well, I think Gerst was right,” Coleman said, referring to Gerstenmaier by his commonly used sobriquet. “And I appreciated what he had to say so far as advocating for more resources.”

Coleman said that when he joined the Commercial Space Transportation arm of the FAA in 1996, the organization had 40 employees. A decade ago, there were 73. Now there are 143, and the organization is “aggressively” seeking to grow to 157 staffers in Florida, California, Texas, and Washington, DC.

“Right now, we’re at about 140 people, and they’re pedaling as fast as they can,” he said. “We’re working on the weekends. We’re working late into the night. We do need additional staff.”

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