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SpaceX’s Starship update comes at a critical time for the program

A view of Starbase in South Texas on Tuesday morning, with Ship 20 and Booster 4 ready for stacking.
Enlarge / A view of Starbase in South Texas on Tuesday morning, with Ship 20 and Booster 4 ready for stacking.

Trevor Mahlmann

SpaceX founder Elon Musk will host a “Starship presentation” on Thursday evening in South Texas at the company’s launch and production site.

The event will provide Musk’s first comprehensive update on the vehicle’s progress toward launch—and plans for when it is operational—since September 2019. SpaceX has made enormous progress on the Super Heavy rocket and Starship upper stage since that time, but some critical questions remain. The presentation will certainly be livestreamed by the company, and Ars will be on hand for the event.

Here are some of the biggest things we’re looking for.

Is Starship ready for flight?

This week, engineers and technicians at the South Texas facility, which SpaceX calls Starbase, will stack a Starship vehicle on top of a Super Heavy booster. The Starship will be “Ship 20.” There haven’t been 19 previous Starship prototypes, but there have been a lot. And this ship will be stacked on “Booster 4.” It will make for an impressive backdrop, but will either of these vehicles take flight?

The answer: probably not. While Booster 4 will have 29 Raptor engines, they appear to have been painted for the presentation, which does not seem like something you would do to a vehicle before a flight.

At the same time, at the nearby production site in South Texas, work is progressing on Ships 21, 22, and so on—and at least Boosters 7 and 8. So what is the plan for all of this hardware and its readiness for an orbital launch attempt?

Frankly, there have been rumors swirling that SpaceX may not even attempt an orbital launch this year due to technical issues with the Raptor engine. All of this information has been vague and unconfirmed. However, it’s true that SpaceX has been testing the “Raptor 2” engine at its facilities in McGregor Texas with some urgency. Hopefully Musk will clarify all of this.

Will Starship fly from Texas?

Setting aside the rocket’s readiness, there are also questions about the Federal Aviation Administration’s review of the South Texas site for orbital Starship launches.

This past September, the FAA released its initial environmental report on South Texas, kicking off a public comment period. At the time, the FAA said it planned to release a final assessment at the end of 2021. Then it delayed that release until the end of February. Now, there is chatter that the FAA may delay the process beyond the end of February.

Whenever the process reaches a conclusion, the FAA is expected to issue one of three rulings: a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), a Mitigated FONSI, or a Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. A “FONSI” would allow the formal launch licensing process to proceed. If a full Environmental Impact Statement is needed, launches from South Texas would likely be delayed by months, if not years, as more paperwork is completed.

In recent months, SpaceX has begun restarting operations at a Starship worksite near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Is it doing so in case the company needs to pivot its Starship program from South Texas to Florida? Again, hopefully Musk will share SpaceX’s view on launch site availability.

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