SpaceX’s Starship Rocket Is Essential for America’s Space Ambitions

SpaceX’s Starship Rocket Is Essential for America’s Space Ambitions

Legal and regulatory concerns surrounding Starship’s recent test launch challenge the U.S. private sector’s efforts to compete with China over next-generation super-heavy-lift rocketry.

 

We are now over two months past SpaceX’s historic Starship test launch. The massive rocket blasted off from Texas on April 20, but exploded several minutes after liftoff. SpaceX is already preparing for its next mission; CEO Elon Musk initially predicted a next test in 1–2 months, and a Federal Communications Commission application requested a six-month window beginning June 15.

But the launch blasted a hole into the pad and scattered debris across the launch site and nearby towns. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded Starship and opened an investigation. Environmental groups sued the FAA, claiming the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not conducting a thorough enough review of the project.

 

It is litigation, not engineering or manufacturing, that could be the biggest imminent threat to Starship’s next test. Given that NASA’s impressive but costly Space Launch System lacks viability as a long-term, super heavy-lift option, the lack of a private-sector peer competitor in the near-to-medium-term, and the rapid rise of China as a space power and its in-development Starship equivalent, the United States heavily depends on Starship succeeding to ensure long-term civil and military leadership in space. A major, years-long delay—or license revocation—would be devastating to both SpaceX and the United States.

It is thus imperative that the parties work to produce a timely resolution of the legal and regulatory issues that engages with the local community on environmental impact, ensures that SpaceX has taken steps to ensure such damage to and around the site does not occur again, and allows for testing to move forward this year.

Go for Launch

In 2014, SpaceX chose Boca Chica to be Starbase, its next rocket development and testing facility. SpaceX rapidly developed the site, located just a few miles from the Rio Grande, and began testing Starship prototypes. The orbital test launch explosion was not the company’s first run-in with the FAA, which had previously said that a 2020 test of a prototype violated SpaceX’s launch license for the mission. But the FAA approved the next test after investigating the launch and approving corrective steps taken by SpaceX.

The FAA began an environmental review of Starship’s orbital launch plan, and by June 2022 the FAA released a Programmatic Environmental Assessment, requiring SpaceX to take over seventy-five actions to mitigate the environmental impact, including on wetlands and wildlife, and noise pollution. Just six days before the Starship test, the FAA granted Starship a five-year launch license, having determined that SpaceX had met all of its requirements. But the FAA did not conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which could have added years to the application, finding it unnecessary.

Starship self-destructed a few minutes into its mission—a reminder that not even any nation or company as experienced as SpaceX avoids failure. In fact, CEO Elon Musk downplayed expectations by saying that the mission would be successful if it got off the pad. Given this context and Starship’s iterative design process that accounts for failures, this test was rightly considered progress.

The explosion rained debris across land and sea, affecting nearby towns and nature reserves and starting a fire in a state park. The rocket also blasted a crater into the launch pad that sent chunks of concrete, dust, and debris flying. There was no flame trench on the pad, which directs flames and exhaust away from the pad during launch. Musk said that SpaceX was taking steps to prevent damage during future launches.

The FAA grounded Starship and launched an investigation, which could stretch many months. Environmental and cultural groups sued the FAA, claiming the agency did not properly consider the environmental impact of Starship. The suit calls for the FAA to revoke the launch license. Weeks later, SpaceX sought to join the lawsuit as a defendant, and warned that the suit could result in the program being “significantly delayed.”

The FAA did conduct an extensive environmental assessment. The legal delays sought by the environmental groups, and a full EIS itself, are completely at odds with SpaceX’s typical breakneck development and iteration speeds. Relocating to other existing launch sites, like Cape Canaveral in Florida, Vandenberg in California, or Wallops in Virginia, would likely require investment, development, environmental reviews, and licenses, costing time and money.

I’m Not Like Other Rockets

Starship is critical to both civil and military U.S. presence in and leadership of space. In the short term, NASA selected a variant of the Starship spacecraft as a lander to bring Artemis astronauts to the lunar surface, needed for the Artemis III mission as soon as 2025. But the impact of a long-term license suspension or revocation would go far beyond a lander.

Starship’s launch came five months after NASA tested its own new super-heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), that intends to transport humans back to the Moon and ultimately to Mars. So far, NASA has spent twelve years and over $20 billion on the Artemis Program, the SLS, and Orion crew capsule. Each SLS launch is estimated to cost an eye-watering $4.1 billion. SpaceX envisions each Starship launch costing under $10 million. In other words, Starship will likely make Artemis obsolete. The Starship test mission is another reminder that beyond low-earth orbit (LEO), Artemis and SLS are here to stay for now. But Starship’s future role in cost reduction beyond LEO makes each delay now even more costly in the future.

Beyond NASA, Starship is part of a rapidly expanding private sector launch industry, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket launches small satellites and its in-development Neutron will deliver larger payloads. Relativity Space’s forthcoming heavy-lift, partially-reusable Terran R, comes closer to Starship but is still smaller and can carry less payload.

But these launch systems developed by smaller start-ups are closer to competing with Falcon 9 than with Starship; mega-rockets are much more expensive and riskier. Mission failures can doom smaller companies. Virgin Orbit, which provided an operational launch system via air-launched rockets to deliver small satellites to orbit, went bankrupt this year, months after a failed test. It took many years and billions of dollars for Starship to reach this year’s test, and SpaceX must still contend with, and iterate after, an explosion.

Blue Origin’s forthcoming heavy-lift New Glenn has already won government launch contracts and should be commercially successful. But it can carry half of Starship’s cargo tonnage to orbit. There is no current private sector equivalent that could rapidly deploy satellite mega-constellations or deliver major logistical infrastructure to orbit like satellite and vehicle refueling stations, which could be critical as geopolitical tensions on Earth escalate into space. There may be a future peer commercial competitor to Starship, but surveying the current landscape, and understanding how much time and money goes into building a rocket of any kind, that is unlikely anytime soon.

The Chinese space program has grown rapidly in recent decades. The PRC launched its first astronaut into space in 2003 and built a space station, Tiangong, completed last year. Longer-term plans include building a permanent settlement on the Moon called the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), which it aims to build with Russia and other partner countries.

While the ILRS aims to rival NASA’s multilateral Artemis Program, China is closely watching Starship’s development. China is building its own next-generation super-heavy-lift rocket, the Long March 9. Starship development is still far ahead, but it is clear which rocket China is emulating, and it is not NASA’s SLS. Initially, Long March 9 was expendable. In November 2022, designers switched to a version with a reusable first stage. By March 2023, China announced that it will be fully reusable.

In other words, the result of the Starship test has geopolitical implications as well. Without Starship, it is not unreasonable to think that China could have a reusable super heavy-lift rocket capable of quickly delivering crew, cargo, and infrastructure to low-Earth orbit and beyond–and not the United States.

The Stakes

Falcon 9 was revolutionary, but revolutionary for the private sector. Starship could be revolutionary for humanity, with the potential to win the race to Mars, ahead of any government or other private-sector player. And it is important to the United States for its cargo capacity, reusability, and rapid turnaround capabilities. The Starship test certainly exceeded the expectations set by SpaceX. But the mid-air explosion has created a cloud of uncertainty over Starship’s immediate future. There is a lot at stake over the next few months—for SpaceX, for NASA, for South Texas, for Artemis partners, and for China, as the next Starship prototype is developed and investigations continue.

Policymakers should be closely watching the FAA investigation into the test mission and legal action against the agency. U.S. national security interests will be harmed by an investigation and litigation that stretch out over many years. The FAA had already investigated and cleared Starship initially, and it is not in SpaceX’s interest to have its launch complex cratered and incinerated with every test. It is critical that the sides are able to reach a resolution that addresses the environmental damage and remediation from the test, engages the local community, and allows for a resumption of testing later this year.