Why has SpaceX’s Starship still not taken off?

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Watch the SN15 prototype of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft fly at altitude. The machine landed successfully in the planned landing area, and for the first time, without exploding!

The most important element of Starship is the Raptor engine. Since the announcement of the project by Elon Musk in 2016, the engine manufacturers of SpaceX work hard to make this engine reliable. We went through several demonstration flightsbut never going beyond the troposphere. Even though the orbital test flight will be “ probably a failure “, as Elon Musk says, it is an important, complex step, and nevertheless doable this year. So what’s blocking?

First of all, the Raptor engine showed its weaknesses in its first versions, so much so that a few months ago, Elon Musk would have even spoken of a “Raptor crisis”. Recently, a new engine design (Raptor-2) was unveiled at a press conference. A very clean design. The Raptor 2 will also have a stronger thrust than its predecessor: 230 tons instead of 185 tons for the Raptor 1.

Few details have been released on the Raptor 2, but it is very likely that SpaceX is waiting for the engine to be ready to make new chip jumps as well as orbital flight. And the engine seems a lot more complicated to develop than Musk seemed to predict. The SpaceX CEO added that the first reusable floor Super Heavy will have 33 Raptors instead of 29. This extremely complex architecture is reminiscent of that of the rocket Soviet lunar N1 which never managed to leave the ground successfully.

Finally, a new delay should be on the horizon. Elon Musk announced in a tweet that SpaceX will focus more on cybersecurity for a while, in the context of the war in Ukraine. Musk warned that this would slow down the planning on the Starlink constellation and also on the development of the Starship.

The endless match with federal authority

For now, SpaceX says they will be ready to perform the orbital flight in March. But, apart from the technical aspects, the assembly tower is not even homologated. Elon Musk has repeatedly overtaken the authorities by settling in Boca Chica, Texas, by the sea and the Mexican border. Today, the FAA has not yet given its fire green for orbital flight.

What is the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration ? It is the authority that gives the green light to any civilian operation taking place in American airspace. It licenses airlines as well as rocket operating companies, such as SpaceX. Woe to him who goes outlaw!

This is what happened with SpaceX. In December 2020, during the test flight of the model SN8 of the Starship, SpaceX ignores last-minute warnings from the FAA and steps outside its launch license. Other violations have pointed the spotlights on Boca Chica: too close proximity of the staff during the tests, nuisance sound causing the inhabitants of the surroundings to flee, falling debris in undesirable places when a test fails, not to mention the effects on the environment.

Video of the SN11 demonstrator test. After the explosion, we see a rain of debris falling on the site. The fog greatly reduced visibility. © Nasaspaceflight

Since then, the institution has not missed one to be meticulous in the procedures and has decided to x-ray all the effects of SpaceX’s activities in Boca Chica. For his part, Elon Musk had embarked on a match of verbal criticism on Twitter against the administration.

Today the climate went from defiance to calm. However, the FAA has not yet completed its report on its environmental assessment of Starbase. It was to be published at the end of December, but the institution has decided to postpone to the end of February, then now to the end of March, the time to finish its consultations with various agencies. The FAA had also opened a public consultation to find out the opinion of local residents, but Elon Musk thwarted it by encouraging his fans on Twitter to come, too, to give an online comment to support him.

Moving to Cape Canaveral?

This is the last option for SpaceX. If ever the FAA’s opinion on Starbase is unfavorable, all that remains is to pack up and settle in Kennedy Space Center. The choice of the possible launch pad has already been made but it will take six to eight months to adapt it to the Starship, which makes an orbital flight of the Starship difficult this year.

The option pleases the Nasa. The agency is sponsor of the Starship to ensure the landing of the Artemis missions on the Moon. The ship Orion would be responsible for transportation to the future space station Gateway, in orbit around our natural satellite, then the Starship would be in charge of the moon landing. The option will appeal less to Elon Musk, who relies heavily on Starbase to his Martian plans.

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