SpaceX battles regulatory process that could hold up Starship test flight for months

SpaceX’s Starship rocket after Ship 25 was restacked on top of Booster 9 on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. The rocket was unstacked the following day. Image: SpaceX

Update Oct. 19: Added comment from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Update Oct. 18: Added date that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received the final biological assessment from the Federal Aviation Administration.

SpaceX leadership is heading to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby for greater efficiency when it comes regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The company is hoping to streamline the process of issuing launch licenses for both Starship test flights and more routine Falcon 9 rocket missions.

Ahead of the hearing before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Space and Science, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told Spaceflight Now its regulatory approval process for the second Starship test flight could potentially last until the spring of 2024.

In a statement on Tuesday, a FWS spokesperson said their agency received a final biological assessment from the FAA Oct. 5 and FWS has up to 30 days to review it. This came after the FAA sent FWS a letter in August, which requested “reinitiation of Endangered Species Act consultation.”

“Under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, reinitiation of formal consultation is required when a project and its impacts change significantly, the amount of take issued previously is exceeded, we have new information on listed species not previously considered, or a new species is listed,” the spokesperson said. “Reinitiation involving major changes in effects analysis or changes in the [FWS’] biological opinion are addressed fully in a new consultation. For SpaceX reinitiation with FAA, we are considering the operation of a water deluge system.”

That new deluge system was part of a list of 63 corrective actions created as part of the SpaceX-led mishap investigation following the failed launch of the first integrated flight test on April 20, 2023.

The system has been used a few times, including on a pair of static fire tests of Booster 9, which is set to be the next to fly for SpaceX, along with Ship 25.

On Tuesday, the company unstacked the rocket after stacking it just a day before. Following Monday’s stacking operation, SpaceX said in a post on the social media site X, “Starship fully stacked while team prepares for a launch rehearsal. We continue to work with the FAA on a launch license.”

However, that license could still be a ways off. Following the 30-day review of the final biological assessment from the FAA, the FWS has “135 days to issue an amended biological opinion.”

That 135 days is comprised of the formal consultation period, which could last up to 90 days, and the process of crafting its biological opinion, for which it has 45 days.

Spaceflight Now reached out to the FAA for comment on what actions it needs to take once it receives the FWS’ amended biological opinion. A spokesperson for the FAA said the agency “will announce whether any environmental mitigations are required for the water deluge system when the environmental review is complete.”

Political pressure mounting for launch

The adjusted timeline comes as Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability, prepares to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Space and Science on Wednesday in a panel focusing U.S. commercial human space activities.

Testimony from Gerstenmaier and representatives from Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, National Aerospace Solution and CS Consulting, will run the gamut from “suborbital flights to lunar surface habitats.”

That last one is key for SpaceX and the Starship program. The rocket was chosen as the Human Landing System (HLS) for the Artemis 3 and Artemis 4 missions for NASA.

Several demonstration flights of Starship will be required before NASA will authorize its astronauts to fly aboard Starship. Those include a ship-to-ship refueling demonstration as well as an uncrewed lunar landing.

In an interview with Ars Technica this week, a senior SpaceX official said that a backlog with FAA work caused them to make some tough calls on what they want the agency to prioritize regarding their launch vehicles.

“Licensing at this point for Starship is a critical path item for the Artemis program and for our execution,” a SpaceX official said. “Certainly looking forward into next year, we really need to operate that program at a higher cadence of flights. Six to eight months turns, that’s not great for the program.”

At the rate that regulatory approval is moving, that turnaround could theoretically become a year or more.


  1. The first ones are usually the hardest.

    It’s important FAA AND FWD do their proper due diligence up front so it will be more difficult for the inevitable Naysayers to have basis for continued whining. Obviously all forms of life are precious. Every species is it’s own treasure. As a human I care about every amoeba to a degree but I do not want amoeba deaths or unwanted further delay of this vital Space program. Please do your due diligence thoroughly and professionally and promptly FWS. The entire world is literally waiting on you.

    Go Team FREEDOM
    Stop Exploring
    Space! NEVER

  2. to surrect planets is how to live in a universe – mars belongs to life
    (once it rains fish can sutvive mars nature )

    melt large amounts of ice with reflectors, boiloff be greenhouse insulation and atmospheric pressure

  3. Putting the regulating of rocketry and space into the hands of the FAA is an unmitigated disaster as you can see by what they have done so far. They dont care about anything but safety as they interpret it (anyway they feel like) preferably by not having a rocket program at all. As a former pilot I have been a victim of their overreaching rules. Their name is Federal Aviation Administration and their purview is aviation not rocketry. The development of space should be under NASA not the FAA. The FAA should be involved only as far as rocket launches affect planes. Their bringing in the FWS because of a little extra water is ridiculous. What do they do when it rains? Give god a fine? If this persists – which it will if the FAA is involved – Musk may have to find somewhere else – I am sure he is considering it right now – like cape canaveral or another country? The FAA has extended their interpretation of responsibility for safety to cover rocketry. This is overreaching beyond what their original purpose was. They have already curtailed innovation in private aircraft through crippling bureaucracy. Good luck Musk you’re going to need it.

  4. Seems like the Government is still butt hurt over Twitter files release. It’s going to be a bumpy road until we get new administration.

  5. Time to move the Space X program down to Mexico. As well as combustion engine cars.
    Let’s get this program moving forward.

  6. It’s weird how they can use the deluge system for a big static fire, but not for a launch which more or less has the same impact on nature. Why didn’t they start the assessment at the moment they did the first deluge test, and allow the launch while they do the assesment. As they already used it several times during some static fires and just tests, and they can see the impact after the system it used.

  7. The problem here isn’t necessarily the FAA, but NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act). That requires an exhaustive environmental impacts analysis for everything federal agencies do or approve others doing. If NASA was the lead agency, they’d still have to do all the same NEPA analysis and Fish and Wildlife consultations. This isn’t the fault of any one single agency, it’s squarely the fault of an outdated law that made the deliberate decision to prioritize protecting the environment from even the most minute impacts over all other considerations in government policy.

    If you’re wondering why a few endangered sea birds are able to bring out entire national space program to a screeching halt, it’s because that’s exactly what NEPA is designed to do. Things won’t change unless NEPA is repealed or else Congress grants SpaceX a blanket exemption from environmental laws.

  8. Spacex enthusiastically dangled the FAA in front of their social media machine across ’21 & into ’22, as the excuse or “fallguy” for Starship’s delays, encouraging their fans to bemoan the FAA. In reality, Starship had protracted development delays. When they suddenly launched, it looked like the FAA was actually in their pocket, snapping out the license when SpX thought they were finally ready. For those who pay attention, the credibility of SpX is gone. In addition, they were just recently still working on the rocket again (though without press conferences, we all just have to guess what the work was).

    The FAA is now in a lawsuit, remember, for their lax cooperation with Spacex on 4/20, and for the resulting damage to all the surrounding area.

    The FAA now must try to show more caution as it executes the government’s duties, as well as the other agencies, on behalf of all involved.

  9. When the whole planet is over populated and at the currently thousands of people die every day because of this: it seems remaekedly short sighted to be legally, to the letter of the law, concerned that these rules are being followed.

  10. Let me understand. Releasing some fresh water at a location that experiences hurricanes requires a complete rethink of previous extensive environmental impact studies. This is insane and punitive. This is not only a matter of advancing civilization, but a national security issue, as development of Starship is a huge national security advantage and represents the leading edge of spaceship development and myriads of projects that depend on (much) cheaper mass to orbit and beyond.

    The irony is that all the recent improvements to the launch complex and specifically the launch platform have lessened environmental impact. This is an exercise in political influenced bureaucratic extortion by environmental groups that is running out of control.

  11. I have dealt with FWS, they are the worst agency. Nothing but a pointless bureaucratic empire built by environmental zealots. FWS should be refunded and removed.

  12. It’s very anti-American for the incompetent government “manana” men to delay SpaceX who is serving a Vital US Interest.
    It’s probably equal parts biden not liking Elon for his politics and half the usual tortoise pace of entitled government workers who know they can’t be fired and have benefits the rest of us don’t get (pensions).
    Fired is what they actually deserve.

  13. You can attack the regulatory environment all you want, but you can’t say SpaceX didn’t know the hurdles from the start. The main issue leading to this delay is Elon Musk’s insistence early on (while he still ran the Boca Chica operation) that there be no deluge system. If SpaceX engineers had been allowed to design and implement the proper deluge system from the start, it could have been considered in the initial ER and we would not have this delay now. I am so glad Elon no longer runs the Starship program because he is clearly not competent on many of the technical aspects.

  14. I am tired of this current government stopping progress. Other countries are making us look bad. Not to mention they will be getting ahead of us if something is not done soon. SpaceX is kicking ass in this industry but soon they will fall behind by having their hands tied up. Let SpaceX fly.

  15. This could be Greenmail. Expect some environmental consultancy groups will prosper handsomely by this delay.

  16. I’m thinking that SpaceX should move it’s flight operations (including all launching activities) to Panama. Not just for Starship, but for all SpaceX space vehicle activities. Not only would this solve a huge bunch of bureaucratic issues but would lower costs and provide a more efficient launch location. Oh and I would also relocate Starlink to a country that is more supportive of building a world class space space commercial data infrastructure.

  17. The FAA and FWS are old antiquated agencies that have NO BUSINESS being in charge of any space related activities! If NASA wants SpaceX involved with the Artimis Mission they better get these FAA and FWS people off their dead asses!

  18. I swear it almost looks like these regulatory agencies are working with the Chinese communist party to help China catch up and pass SpaceX.

    These people are out of control and are a national security danger to the United States. All so that some birds and frogs don’t get scared from the noise.

    If you want a rocket that will allow real space exploration, then that thing is going to have to be big enough that it scares some wildlife. China will not let this stand in their way and they are catching up.

    These people are adding about seven or eight years at least onto the development process just for their ego.

  19. They will speaking mandarin on the moon a mars if Elon has to deal with the FAA. It’s a shit show. They’re not n the least bit interested in getting it in the air. Now they’re waiting for the fish an game report really, Whats next. LET Elon fly or is it in the US INTEREST TO HOLD UP INNOVATION of anyone who doesn’t fit there mold.

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