SpaceX's massive Starship vehicle could launch on its first-ever orbital test flight next month, but that timeline is far from a sure thing.
The agency has a stake in Starship's progress; NASA picked the giant rocket as the first crewed lunar lander for its Artemis program of moon exploration. If all goes according to the current plan, a Starship will put boots down near the moon's south pole in 2025 or 2026, on the Artemis 3 mission.
"We track four major Starship flights. The first one here is coming up in December, part of early December," Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for Artemis campaign development, said during a livestreamed NASA Advisory Council meeting on Monday (Oct. 31).
No Starship prototype has taken flight since May 2021, and all of its jaunts so far have reached a maximum altitude of just 6 miles (10 kilometers) or so. SpaceX's desire to fly an orbital mission with Starship prompted a lengthy environmental review by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and there are still several things to finish up, Reuters reported.
That FAA review, called a programmatic environmental assessment, examined Starship activities at Starbase, SpaceX's facility near the city of Brownsville in south Texas. The FAA concluded the assessment in June, following numerous delays from late 2021 due to the need to consult with other agencies and deal with public comments. The FAA said this summer that SpaceX needs to take 75 actions to reduce its environmental impact on the area.
Despite SpaceX founder Elon Musk saying several times that Starship would be ready to go orbital soon — Musk recently said the target was November — it seems that SpaceX hasn't quite finished with those FAA action items.
An FAA spokesperson told Reuters on Monday that the agency will grant an orbital launch license "only after SpaceX provides all outstanding information and the agency can fully analyze it." The FAA did not provide more information in the report about what items are outstanding, and SpaceX did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The coming mission aims to heft a prototype 165-foot-tall (50 meters) Starship vehicle into orbit atop a Super Heavy booster that has a height of 230 feet (70 m). The stacked hardware is the tallest rocket system ever. (Starship consists of Super Heavy and the upper-stage Starship spacecraft, both of which are designed to be reusable.)
SpaceX has already conducted a number of static fire tests in 2022 to get Starship ready for the approximately 90-minute mission that, if successful, would see the spacecraft splash down off the coast of Hawaii. It's unclear how much prep work remains before SpaceX is ready to launch the mission, however.
SpaceX's Human Landing System contract with NASA requires several successful spaceflight tests before Starship will be authorized to put astronauts on the moon. NASA is also seeking a second vendor for crewed Artemis landing missions, but more options won't be ready until Artemis 5 at the earliest, putting SpaceX in line for landings on Artemis 3 and Artemis 4 in about 2025 and 2027, depending on how earlier missions go. The first mission of the program, the uncrewed Artemis 1, is targeted to lift off on Nov. 14.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).