Why is FAA approval for SpaceX Starship orbital launches taking so long?

An old joke is going around social media that if the Apollo program had to pass modern environmental regulations, America would never have landed astronauts on the moon. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seems bent on proving the premise of that joke: It recently delayed its environmental review of SpaceX Starship orbital launches from that company’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas for a fourth time.

The latest announcement that the FAA report has been delayed yet again, until the end of May, has caused a proliferation of conspiracy theories on social media. When Ars Technica space reporter Eric Berger reported the latest delay on Twitter, a thread developed in which people chimed in with suggestions that the environmental process was being slow walked or even rigged. One common sentiment is that the FAA is delaying so that the NASA Space Launch System will fly before the orbital SpaceX Starship.

However, a sound principle where government bureaucracy is concerned is to be careful about ascribing to malice what can also be explained by inefficacy common with the federal government.  

In announcing the latest delay, it suggests that the reason includes the need to wade through about 18,000 public comments and that SpaceX has made some last-minute changes to the application that has resulted in the need for further analysis, according to CNBC. The announcement raises a number of questions, however.

First, why is the FAA constantly blowing past its own self-imposed deadlines for getting the environmental review completed? Can that agency not perform accurate project estimates?

Second, while the volume of work seems to be enormous, given the stakes, how many resources is the FAA devoting to the review? Could assigning more people speed the process up?

Finally, one wonders whether the FAA comprehends the true importance of the SpaceX Starship and the ability to launch it on a regular basis from the Boca Chica site. The FAA is not evaluating the environmental impact of a new freeway or an office tower. The Starship represents a quantum leap in the United States’ capacity to launch heavy payloads into space.

The Starship is a crucial part of Project Artemis, a NASA-led plan to return astronauts to the moon. The first people back to the moon will ride to the lunar surface on a Starship. Furthermore, according to a recent story in Ars Technica, the Starship will effectively remove traditional mass constraints for any NASA mission anywhere in the solar system. With refueling, the SpaceX rocket ship can deliver 100 metric tons of anything from the surface of Mars to the moons of the outer planets. The introduction of such capability would be a boon to science and exploration.

The recent tests of anti-satellite weapons by Russia and China, as well as Russia’s nuclear saber rattling in the wake of that country’s invasion of Ukraine reminds us that the world is still a dangerous place. More importantly, these events suggest that control of space will be a crucial part of making the world safer against the threats posed by tyrants and terrorists.

The Starship could provide the new United States Space Force the means to operate directly in space on a constant basis. Its ability to put up heavy payloads could counter Russian and Chinese anti-satellite weapons and start to clean up the clouds of space junk that have proven to be a hazard to space navigation.

Recent advances in laser weapons technology achieved by both Israel and the United States Navy suggest that the Starship could fulfill President Ronald Reagan’s dream of a space-based missile defense system that could make nuclear war all but impossible. Considering the blood-curdling threats being issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military to launch nuclear strikes on the West, the sooner that dream can be given form, the better.

The SpaceX facility in Boca Chica is located next to a wildlife sanctuary. SpaceX should take all measures necessary to preserve that sanctuary. But the Kennedy Space Center in Florida has been launching rockets for over six decades while next to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Space launches and the environment can coexist in Texas because it has already been done in Florida.

Let this latest delay be the last one the FAA imposes. Let the approval for Starship launches be given with all due speed.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags FAA Moon Space space launch SpaceX Technology

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