It is nearly time —

“So far they’ve done what they need to do with regard to environmental impact.”


Photograph from beneath a giant rocket component.

Enlarge / SpaceX’s Booster 4 is lifted onto its orbital launch mount in South Texas.

On Friday afternoon—after much angst and anxious waiting by the spaceflight community—the Federal Aviation Administration issued a launch license to SpaceX for the launch of its Starship rocket from South Texas.

“After a comprehensive license evaluation process, the FAA determined SpaceX met all safety, environmental, policy, payload, airspace integration and financial responsibility requirements,” the agency said in a statement. “The license is valid for five years.”

Receiving this federal safety approval is the final regulatory step the company needed to take before being cleared to fly the largest rocket ever built. Now, the only constraints to launch are technical issues with the rocket or its ground systems. SpaceX is expected to hold a final readiness review this weekend before deciding to proceed with a launch attempt.

This could occur as soon as Monday. The company has a slew of road closures, temporary flight restrictions, and notices to mariners set up for April 17. The launch window is expected to open at 7 am local time in Texas (12:00 UTC). Backup launch opportunities are available on Tuesday and Wednesday.

SpaceX has been seeking federal approval to launch the massive Super Heavy rocket, with its Starship upper stage, for several years from Texas. The launch site is located near the Gulf of Mexico, just north of the Rio Grande River, and surrounded by wetlands. After completing an environmental assessment in June 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration said the company must undertake more than 75 actions to protect the lands and wildlife around the Boca Chica facility.

This week an official at the FAA, speaking on background, said SpaceX has been cooperative on those measures. “So far, they’ve done what they need to do with regard to environmental impact,” the official said. The FAA has responsibility for safety around the launch site and during a vehicle’s flight. It has worked through its procedures carefully and accommodated SpaceX as the technical design of the Starship launch system has changed.

SpaceX is calling this Starship launch an “integrated flight test.” It is the first time that the massive Super Heavy rocket will have taken off and the first time both vehicles will fly together. Under the nominal flight plan, the Super Heavy rocket will boost Starship toward space and, after separation, attempt to make a controlled splash down into the Gulf of Mexico about 30 to 35 km off the coast of Texas. SpaceX will not attempt to recover the booster on this flight.

In the meantime, the Starship vehicle will attempt to ascend to an altitude of 235 km and become “nearly orbital.” Starship’s engines will shut down at 9 minutes and 20 seconds into the flight, after which the vehicle will coast for more than an hour before entering Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. It will not complete a full orbit and is expected to make a high-velocity splash down about 225 km north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. On the nominal timeline, this will occur 90 minutes after liftoff.

Overview of SpaceX's flight plan for Starship's integrated flight test.

Enlarge / Overview of SpaceX’s flight plan for Starship’s integrated flight test.

SpaceX

Because this is the first spaceflight for both vehicles, SpaceX is keeping the overall flight plan relatively simple. For example, Starship will not reignite its engines upon atmospheric reentry, nor attempt to make a controlled reentry into the ocean. Essentially, the goal for this flight is to gather data about the performance of both the first-stage booster and Starship upper stage in order to begin recovery attempts on future flights.

Super Heavy will be the largest and most powerful rocket to ever launch from Earth. However, SpaceX has taken an experimental approach toward developing this booster and Starship, so it is very far from a certainty that this flight will proceed without incident.

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