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Update on Starship/Superheavy: Lots of work, no sign of FAA launch approval

Link here. The article provides a thorough review of the work SpaceX engineers have been doing in the past six weeks since the company announced on September 5th that it was ready to do a second test orbital launch of Starship (prototype #25) and Superheavy (prototype #9), but has been stymied by the refusal of the federal bureaucracy to grant a launch license.

For example, while waiting the company has done some tank tests with Starship prototype #26, which is not expected to fly but is being used for testing. The article outlines a lot of other details, but this is the key quote:

While Ship 26 started its engine testing campaign, SpaceX looks to be gearing up for a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) for Booster 9 and Ship 25. Related notices have been posted for the coming week, marking the imminent return to a full stack for the next Starship to launch as soon as November, pending regulatory approval. [emphasis mine]

This source, NASASpaceflight.com, now admits that the FAA and Fish & Wildlife will not issue a launch license until November. Previous reports from it have tried to lay the blame for the delays on SpaceX. It now can no longer make that claim.

In April, after noting at great length the lack of harm done to wildlife by the first test launch (as admitted by Fish & Wildlife itself, the agency that is presently delaying things), I predicted the following:

[I]t appears that both the FAA and Fish and Wildlife are now teaming up to block any future launches at Boca Chica until SpaceX guarantees that the rocket and its launchpad will work perfectly. But since SpaceX must conduct launches to determine how to build and further refine the design of that rocket and launchpad, it can’t make that guarantee if it is banned from making launches.

We must therefore conclude that these federal agencies are more interested in exerting their power than doing their real job. They are therefore conspiring to shut Starship and Superheavy development entirely, or at a minimum, they are allowing their partisan hatred of Elon Musk and capitalism itself to delay this work as much as possible. As Lord Acton said in 1887, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

At that time I thought it very possible no further launches from Boca Chica would ever be approved. In May I refined that prediction, stating that come August the “…launch license will still not be approved, and we will still have no clear idea of when that approval will come. Nor should we be surprised if approval does not come before the end of this year.”

At the time that prediction was poo-pooed, with claims that I did not understand the regulatory process and that the government certainly did not want to stand in the way. It now appears my prediction was right on the money, and worse, my first prediction might be closer to the truth, that while the federal government doesn’t want to come right out and say, “No more launches from Boca Chica!”, it is imposing so many delays and requirements there that it makes the location impractical for SpaceX to use it as a launch test site.

The company desperately needs to get its second Starship/Superheavy launch site at Cape Canaveral operational. Otherwise it is unlikely it will ever be able to complete the development of this rocket.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 

The print edition can be purchased at Amazon. Or you can buy it directly from the author and get an autographed copy.

 
The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.


The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.
 

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News

10 comments

  • Col Beausabre

    Trump needs to make a campaign promise that on Day 1 of his administration, …….he will issue executive orders (two can play that game) that 1) will remove all agencies besides the FAA trying to regulate flight of any type 2) restrict the ability of the FAA to regulate experimental space flight 3) require all regulatory agencies to issue a final finding within 30 or 90 days (take your pick) of submission of a report of corrective actions taken. 4) a detailed (no arm waving about “possible” dangers like nano satellites hitting airplanes) and final list of corrective actions must be part of any disapproval

  • Richard M

    Elon himself has said that FAA has almost never been a cause for delay. I am inclined to take him at his word.

    Fish & Wildlife, on the other hand…

    From what I have heard, SpaceX was not *quite* ready to launch on Sept. 5. But they look pretty ready to launch now. Now they really do seem to be held up by bureaucracy.

    The company desperately needs to get its second Starship/Superheavy launch site at Cape Canaveral operational.

    The Cape has its own issues, though, not least of which is that as keen as NASA is to have Starship getting into operation, it is also less than keen on seeing Starship launch from LC-39A before it’s proven that it can actually get to orbit, and is a safe bet not to blow up on or near the pad.

  • TallDave

    public enemy #2

  • David Eastman

    Interesting article at Ars Technica, and apparently there is a congressional hearing sort of on this topic tomorrow. https://arstechnica.com/space/2023/10/citing-slow-starship-reviews-spacex-urges-faa-to-double-licensing-staff/

    SpaceX is basically going on record as saying that the FAA is being cooperative and doing it’s best, but is woefully understaffed and unwilling/unable to innovate on ways to streamline their processes.

    As usual with Ars, don’t read the comments if you value your sanity.

  • Richard M

    As usual with Ars, don’t read the comments if you value your sanity.

    Actually, the Berger and Clark articles are just about the only ones at Ars where the comments are not completely insane.

    But yes, this is a valuable article, and worthy of some special treatment here. It suggests that even with an agency where there are some bureaucrats of evident good will, the actual process is a seriously problematic one that is holding back not just commercial space development, but even NASA’s program of record!!

  • Richard M: As to the article itself, I have no doubt that the FAA is hampered by having too few resources, but I note several things:

    1. It somehow didn’t have this kind of difficulty prior to Joe Biden’s arrival as president. Very clearly the higher-ups in this administration are demanding the FAA interpret the regulations far more strictly, which of course increased the workload enormously. Hence the delays.

    2. None of these issues address the introduction of Fish & Wildlife into this launch license process. It has no place there, but once again the arrival of Joe Biden brought it into the game, increasing the regulatory load on SpaceX to a point of breaking it.

  • One more point: Why do people assume the solution to these regulatory issues is always to give the government agencies more money and resources? “If we only had the right people and sufficient support we would certainly get it done right!”

    Hogwash. It is the same logic used by leftists about communism. “Communism has never worked simply because the right people weren’t doing it. We are the right people! Give us the power and all will be well!”

    The answer here is to cut the regulators out of the equation entirely, to return us to the free nation we once were. Sadly, I don’t see that happening, because most Americans no longer have faith in freedom. More important, they don’t have the courage to live in such a state. They want that Big Daddy in Washington to supervise things.

  • Richard M

    Very clearly the higher-ups in this administration are demanding the FAA interpret the regulations far more strictly

    I despise this administration as much as anyone here, believe me, but….do we really have any evidence at all that this is actually happening?

    Even if there has been a chance since January 2021, correlation is not causation: one other thing which has changed is that the Starship program itself has moved into a new phase.

    That said, I agree that this discussion cannot be just about giving FAA more resources. It must also put on the table the nature of the regulations, and how they are interpreted. How many of these rules actually make sense?

  • Richard M: Right now I think is is always safe to assume bad intentions from anyone in the Democratic Party. They need to prove to me that they can be trusted, by actual positive action. Even if the higher-ups in the Biden administration are sitting on their hands and have taken no positive actions to slow SpaceX down, by doing nothing they are allowing it to happen, and thus are complicit in these events.

    The history however suggests they are doing more than sitting on their hands. Before Biden SpaceX was doing regular and frequent Starship flight tests, and made it clear it intended to continue that approach as it moved toward an orbital launch. After Biden testing ground to a halt.

    Why? Though as you say correlation is not causation I think that in politics it almost always so.

  • Robert Pratt

    There is little legitimate reason for FAA to do ANYTHING other than arrange appropriate no fly periods and notices for SpaceX test launches. Goodwill, etc. is meaningless. The FAA has no reason other than the self-interest of power to do anything other than make sure the airspace is clear for test launches.

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