SpaceX chief Elon Musk ‘highly confident’ his Starship will reach orbit this year

But an environmental assessment puts the Boca Chica test-flight and production facility’s future at stake.
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc. Image: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg

Elon Musk said on Thursday he was “highly confident” his new SpaceX Starship, designed for voyages to the moon and Mars, will reach Earth orbit for the first time this year, despite a host of technical and regulatory hurdles yet to be overcome.

The billionaire SpaceX founder and CEO addressed a throng of news media and supporters at his company’s “Starbase” facility in Boca Chica, Texas, for a presentation that combined a high-tech pep rally with big-screen videos and a question-and-answer session.

It came nine months after the private California-based space venture achieved the first successful launch and touchdown of a Starship prototype rocket in a test-flight after four previous landing attempts ended in explosions.

Musk acknowledged difficulties SpaceX has faced in developing the “Raptor 2” engines for its Super Heavy rocket, a reusable next-generation launch booster designed to carry the Starship spacecraft to orbit. He cited problems with melting inside the thruster chambers of the engines from intense heat.

But he said, “we’re very close to solving that,” and expected to scale up production to about seven or eight of the engines a week by next month and produce a new Starship and a booster every month by year’s end.

“I feel at this point highly confident that we will get to orbit (with the Starship) this year,” said Musk, who also heads electric car maker Tesla.

Such a time frame would mark an ambitious feat, even for an uncrewed orbital test flight of the Super Heavy/Starship combo, the next step up from SpaceX’s current workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, which Musk said has flown 144 successful launches and 106 return landings.

Environmental review

But the very future of the Boca Chica test-flight and production facility near the southeastern Gulf Coast tip of Texas is now at stake in an environmental assessment of the site under way by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether a planned build-out there poses a significant environmental impact to the area – including an adjacent wildlife reserve – and must therefore undergo a far more extensive study before expanded operations at Boca Chica can be licensed.

Such an environmental impact statements, or EIS reviews, can take years to complete and are often subject to litigation.

Asked what he knew about the status of the FAA review, Musk said, “We don’t have a ton of insight into where things stand with the FAA,” but added: “We have gotten sort of a rough indication there may be an approval in March. But that’s all we know.”

Even in a “worst-case” scenario, in which a full EIS were required or legal wrangling over the issue threatened to drag on, Musk said SpaceX has a fall-back plan. The company would shift its entire Starship program to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where SpaceX already has received the environmental approval it needs, Musk said.

Such a move would cause a setback of six to eight months, he added.

In any case, SpaceX is still shooting for a 2023 launch of what it calls the world’s first private lunar mission, flying Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and a dozen artists aboard a Starship to loop around the moon and return to Earth.

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The patriotic thing to do would be to build here in SA – we’ve got the room..we got the platinum needed for his thrusters…we got the workforce, we’ve got a currency that would halve his costs and after SONA yesterday, red tape prohibiting his investment will apparently disappear! It’s a no brainier lol!

We’ve also got the trade unions, the BBEE legislation, the politicians who would want a nice slice of the pie with grand openings and presentations – refer Zondo handovers – and an untrainable workforce – refer ESKOM, SANRAL and Transnet.

An inept, corrupt, lazy, technician (if he even got hired) working for Spacex in California can be told: “you’re fired” and has to pack up and go or else security will escort him out of the building.

Try that at Eskom. Or Transnet where: “At a position of 347 out of 351, the World Bank has placed the Port of Cape Town at the bottom of a list assessing global container port performance, ranking lower than all other ports in Africa which means our port is less efficient than Djibouti, Abidjan, Beira, Maputo, Walvis Bay, Dar es Salam and Mombasa”

End of comments.

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