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Elon Musk, shown in 2020, can’t get an orbital test flight underway from the company’s southeast Texas launch facility without the FAA’s environmental assessment plan.

Elon Musk, shown in 2020, can’t get an orbital test flight underway from the company’s southeast Texas launch facility without the FAA’s environmental assessment plan. (Maja Hitij, Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — The Federal Aviation Administration announced one more delay for the release of its environmental assessment of the SpaceX plans to launch its new Starship with Super Heavy rocket on an orbital test flight from Texas.

In a release Tuesday, the FAA said it was planning to release its final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) on June 13, two weeks later than its last target of May 31.

The FAA originally planned on releasing its Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of the proposed flight at the end of 2021, but has issued of a series of delays for the report after getting thousands of responses to the plan during a public comment period last year. The latest delay cites ongoing interagency consultation.

Previous delays cited the sheer amount of public input.

“SpaceX made multiple changes to its application that require additional FAA analysis,” the agency stated in a press release earlier this year. “The agency continues to review around 18,000 general public comments.”

Elon Musk’s plans to get an orbital test flight underway from the company’s southeast Texas launch facility can’t move forward without the PEA. Even then, that review doesn’t guarantee an OK for SpaceX to fly either, as Musk and others have stated that it could pave the way for a more intense Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that could delay any Texas launch plans beyond 2022. The FAA has cautioned that the company also needs to meet FAA safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements.

If faced with an EIS, Musk has said plans for the Starship launch may need to shift in the short-term to Kennedy Space Center, where work continues on hardware to support the new rocket from KSC’s Launch Pad 39-A, the current home to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

In the meantime, SpaceX posted images of the rollout of Starship 24 at the Texas site launch pad this past weekend. It’s the first time new Starship hardware has rolled out for testing since August 2021.

Musk said in February he expects what would be the most powerful rocket to ever launch from the Earth still to have its first flight by the end of the year, even if it has to shift to Florida.

To date, the company has flown prototype versions of Starship without the booster to about 6 miles altitude, and attempted landings back in Texas, sometimes with fiery results. Those used only three or fewer of the new, powerful Raptor engines. The fully working orbital version will be coupled with a Super Heavy booster with 39 Raptor engines, 33 on the booster and six on Starship.

The plan for the next test flight, though, if it were to lift off from Texas, seeks to launch a stacked version of Starship and Super Heavy, have them separate, return the booster to land on a SpaceX vessel 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico while Starship achieves orbit for least one trip around the Earth and then lands in the Pacific Ocean.

Texas remains SpaceX’s preferred location for continued testing of Starship.

“Because we have a lot of launches going out of the Cape we didn’t want to disrupt the Cape activity — the operational launches — with the advance R&D of Starship,” Musk said in February. “So it was important to decouple the operational launches from the R&D launches. That’s why we’re at this location.”

2022 is proving to be the busiest yet for SpaceX for its existing stable of rockets including 22 launches through the first 21 weeks of the year.

Musk has said the company could hit as many as 60 in a calendar year, nearly doubling 2021′s record of 31 seen across KSC, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Vandenberg Space Force Base sites.

So a shift to KSC for Starship testing could prove complicated.

When it does launch, the Starship and Super Heavy combo would generate more than 16 million pounds of thrust. That nearly doubles the power of NASA’s planned Artemis flights and more than doubles those of the Apollo missions.

Immediate plans for Starship are for Starlink satellite delivery to add to the company’s growing constellation of internet satellites, as well as to develop a version to assist NASA in getting humans back on the moon by 2025. Also upcoming is a tourist flight to orbit the moon funded by a Japanese fashion tycoon who’s taking along several artists.

The main purpose for its development, though, is eventually to help create a self-sustaining colony on Mars.

©2022 Orlando Sentinel.

Visit orlandosentinel.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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