Sometimes it is difficult to write objectively about the rate at which SpaceX makes progress. The advancements we’re seeing at the company’s Starbase site in South Texas are unprecedented.
Like, seriously unprecedented.
On Sunday, SpaceX finished stacking what it is calling “Booster 4,” the first of its Super Heavy rocket boosters expected to take flight. This is a massive, single-core rocket that is approximately 70 meters tall, with a diameter of 9 meters. It has a thrust approximately double that of the Saturn V rocket that launched NASA astronauts to the Moon.
Then, overnight, something remarkable happened. Technicians and engineers at the SpaceX build facility near Boca Chica Beach attached 29 Raptor rocket engines to the rocket. Twenty-nine engines. Each with intricate plumbing lines and connections. This is the number of engines that Super Heavy will fly with for initial flight tests, although the final configuration is likely to have 32 engines.
I’m not really sure what to write or say about all this, because typically in the rocket business it takes a few days to install a single engine.
After some initial checkouts in the assembly area, Booster 4 will roll to the launch site a couple of kilometers down the road. This may happen as early as Tuesday. After this, there likely will be pressure tests and a series of static fire tests. With this many valuable Raptor engines on the line, we can probably expect SpaceX to be fairly cautious with the test program for this vehicle.
SpaceX has also nearly completed “Ship 20,” the latest Starship upper-stage prototype that will be placed on top of Booster 4 for a full-stack launch of the Starship system.
While SpaceX has made substantial progress on hardware, the company’s movement on the regulatory side of things remains murky. It appears as though the rapid assembly of Starship, its Super Heavy booster, and the orbital launch complex in South Texas will set up yet another high-stakes showdown between the FAA and SpaceX. The company is going to be ready to fly, but there’s no clarity on when the Federal Aviation Administration will complete its environmental review of the Starbase location and approve orbital launches from the site.
For months, SpaceX has been working with the FAA on an environmental assessment. After a “draft” of this assessment is published, there will be a minimum of a 30-day period for public comments. This will be followed by other steps, including a determination by the FAA on whether SpaceX’s proposed environmental mitigations will be enough, or if more work is required. More information about this process is available on the FAA’s website.
Given all of that, it is difficult to see SpaceX receiving the required regulatory approvals to launch Starship on an orbital test flight before this fall, if not later.
Even so, SpaceX has reportedly been staffing up in South Texas, bringing hundreds of employees in from its California-based headquarters and elsewhere in order to complete assembly of Booster 4 and the launch site facilities. Why would it be doing this if regulatory approval is not coming for months?
It seems like a calculated effort to induce the FAA to move more quickly with the regulatory process. The optics of a completed rocket, by far the largest and most powerful in the world, sitting on a launch pad waiting for paperwork is not great. And with both NASA and the US Department of Defense now having a vested interest in Starship’s success, SpaceX may find allies elsewhere in the US government.