August 8, 2022

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Now, with Musk scheduled to give an update Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern time on...

Now, with Musk scheduled to give an update Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern time on the rocket system at SpaceX’s facility at the southernmost tip of Texas near the Gulf of Mexico, the landscape has changed dramatically. SpaceX has a production line that is pumping out Starship test vehicles one after the other. Several have flown several miles high. And while some of those crash landed in debris-strewing fireballs, SpaceX finally stuck a landing last spring, achieving a milestone that it says will allow it to refly the vehicles over and over, as it does its other rocket, the Falcon 9.

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Perhaps most significantly, NASA awarded SpaceX a nearly $3 billion contract last spring to use the spacecraft to land its astronauts on the moon as part of its Artemis program. It was a major stamp of approval that survived legal challenges thrown up by one of the losing bidders, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

During the presentation, Musk is expected to give a timeline of when Starship will be ready for an orbital launch attempt as well as whether it is on track to meet NASA’s goal of getting astronauts to the lunar surface by 2025.

As he told in an interview last year, “The overarching goal of Starship is to be able to transport enough tonnage to the moon and to Mars to have a self-sustaining base on the moon, and ultimately a self-sustaining city on Mars.”

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SpaceX’s Texas facility, dubbed “Starbase,” has been utterly transformed in the past few years. It is an impressive sight.

On Thursday, a Starship spacecraft stood stacked on top of a Super Heavy booster, a nearly 400-foot-tall tower of stainless steel gleaming in the winter sun. The first-stage booster has an astonishing 29 Raptor engines and is designed to deliver Starship to orbit and then fly back to its launchpad and be caught by a pair of metal arms that look like giant chopsticks, which is, as Musk told , “pretty nuts.”

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The promise of the system has galvanized Musk’s obsessive fan base, who at times flock to SpaceX’s facility here, which sits next to a public road.

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But there are many significant hurdles ahead, and Musk has a tendency to be overly optimistic about the timeline for his ambitious projects. And when he feels his teams aren’t rising to meet his demanding timelines, he’ll let them know. In November, for example, he reportedly wrote an email to SpaceX employees complaining about the slow rate of progress in the development of its next-generation Raptor engine. “The Raptor production crisis is much worse than it seemed a few weeks ago,” he wrote. And he said the company faced a “genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year.”

That dire prediction was probably overblown, analysts have said, a way for Musk, a notoriously hard charger, to motivate his teams. But flying anything of Starship’s size is going to be a daunting challenge, and SpaceX faces additional layers of complexity: Starship will need to be refueled in orbit several times by tanker ships before making its way to the moon, and SpaceX still doesn’t have a license to launch its gleaming spacecraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration has yet to complete an environmental review of the launch site necessary before it can grant a license. The FAA originally planned to complete the review by the end of last year. But it’s received more than 18,000 comments from the public, a massive influx from both supporters who believe in Musk’s vision that Starship will allow humanity to reach the moon and Mars, and from detractors who fear it will ruin a fragile ecosystem along a fragile coastline.

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The new deadline for completing the review is Feb. 28, and it may be delayed even further.

In a letter to the FAA, the Interior Department wrote that it has “remaining concerns” that the use of Starbase to launch Starship could adversely affect air quality, climate change and force the closure of wildlife preserves.

“Boca Chica is an important link of the Lower Rio Grande Valley ‘Wildlife Corridor,’ ” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website. “It connects habitat along the Gulf Coast to the Rio Grande and allows wildlife to travel unimpeded.” The agency notes that the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, “the most critically endangered sea turtle in the world, comes ashore to nest on refuge beaches in the spring and summer.”

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Many local officials, however, remain supportive since SpaceX is bringing jobs to a border area struggling with poverty and unemployment.

While the FAA conducts its review, NASA is charging ahead with its Artemis campaign to return astronauts to the moon. While Starship would ferry the astronauts to and from the lunar surface, the crew would be launched in an Orion capsule perched on top of the space agency’s Space Launch System rocket. Like Starship, it is massive and has never flown to space before. Unlike Starship, it’s expendable — the core stage of the SLS will fall into the ocean after launch, never to be used again.

The program has suffered all sorts of setbacks and delays. But NASA is planning to roll the rocket, with the Orion stacked on top of it, to the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida next month so that it could be fueled and technicians can simulate a countdown. It will then be rolled back into its assembly building for further tests. NASA hopes to launch it for the first time this spring. That mission would send the Orion capsule, without any astronauts on board, in orbit around the moon.

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Astronauts would be on board the next launch, Artemis II, and would orbit the moon again, but not touch down. On the Artemis III mission, Starship would dock with Orion near the moon, and then ferry the astronauts to the surface before returning them to Orion, which would carry them back to Earth.

Starship also has some key tests coming up, pending the FAA’s approval. If the orbital launch attempt goes well, SpaceX intends to start flying it frequently. And it also intends an uncrewed test landing on the moon before landing astronauts there.

 

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