SpaceX reportedly faces a new potential regulatory delay to its plans to launch its Starship spacecraft into orbit for the first time.
The private space contractor, helmed by Elon Musk, has been developing a launch site in Florida, but NASA is concerned an accident at that site could damage infrastructure critical to the International Space Station, NASA space operations chief Kathy Lueders told Reuters.
SpaceX accelerated development of its secondary Cape Canaveral, Florida launch facility last year after the FAA launched a review of its primary launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, which is set to conclude next Monday.
International Space Station
But one of the launch pads it has been developing for a Starship orbital launch, located at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, is adjacent to a pad SpaceX uses to launch Crew Dragon capsules carrying astronauts to the ISS.
Currently the facility at 39A is NASA’s only means of carrying humans to the space station, and the agency is concerned that an explosion at the Starship launch pad could put the ISS facility out of operation.
“We all recognise that if you had an early failure like we did on one of the early SpaceX flights, it would be pretty devastating to 39A,” Lueders said.
SpaceX has already invested heavily in a Starship launch pad at 39A, but has reportedly pitched NASA an alternative plan to launch Starship rockets from Launch Complex 40, five miles away on Space Force property.
The company is also looking at ways of “hardening” the 39A facility to make it more resilient to a Starship explosion – of which there have been several so far – and to the forces of a successful liftoff, according to Leuders.
Both plans would require NASA’s approval.
SpaceX is working with NASA on the plans because delays could risk the company’s revenues from NASA becoming “interrupted”, Lueders said.
Starship is a reusable two-stage rocket system designed to carry commercial satellites into orbit and to ferry humans to the Moon and Mars.
NASA last year chose the system for its plans to carry humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo programme.
The next major milestone for the project is to successfully launch the vehicle into orbit, but that has been delayed by the FAA’s lengthy review of the Texas launch facility’s environmental impact.
The review is expected to place conditions on SpaceX that could add delays to the Starship programme, making the Florida launch site potentially more significant.
Musk in February said the Cape Canaveral launch pad was an “alternative” to Boca Chica and noted the company had “applied for environmental approval for launch from the Cape a few years ago and received it”.
He estimated at the time it would take “six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there”.