FAA concludes SpaceX Starship safety review, continues environmental review

SpaceX’s Starship rocket stands fully stacked near the shoreline of Texas at its Starbase facility on Oct. 20, 2023. On Oct. 31, the FAA said it concluded its safety review ahead of its second test flight. Image: SpaceX

SpaceX’s highly anticipated second test flight of its Starship super heavy lift rocket is one step closer to liftoff from South Texas. On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration announced the conclusion of its safety review.

The agency issued a brief statement noting the this portion of the assessment wrapped up on Oct. 31. It describes the safety review as being “focused on issues that affect public health and safety of property.”

“It consists of evaluating the applicant’s safety organization, system safety processes, flight safety analysis, and quantitative risk criteria for launch, reentry, and vehicle disposal,” the FAA stated.

The biggest outstanding piece of the equation before the second integrated flight test is the environmental review, which is being done in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

On Oct. 5, the FAA sent its final biological assessment to FWS. The latter agency had up to 30 days to review that document, but announced that it finished that review on Oct. 19 and reinitiated its formal Endangered Species Act consultation with the FAA.

That process is allotted 135 days by statute, but similarly with the biological assessment review, FWS stated on Oct. 26 that it does “not expect to take the full amount of time.” Spaceflight Now reached out to FWS to see where the agency is in the process and is waiting to hear back.

That 135 days breaks down into two main buckets as part of the agency’s “ESA Section 7 Consultation” process:

  • Formal consultation (up to 90 days)
    • The period where the FAA and FWS “share information about the proposed project and the species or critical habitat likely to be affected.”
  • Craft a biological opinion (up to 45 days)
    • “A biological opinion usually includes conservation recommendations to further the recovery of listed species, and it may also include reasonable and prudent measures, as needed, to minimize any ‘take’ of listed species.”

In a statement to Spaceflight Now on Tuesday, an FAA spokesperson said, “The environmental review is the last major element to complete before the FAA makes a license determination.”

Last week, SpaceX stacked Ship 25 with Booster 9 and conducted a wet dress rehearsal before unstacking the vehicle.

“We are prepared to conduct Starship’s second integrated test flight as soon as the end of this month, pending only FAA license approval, which includes the reviews of supporting agencies,” Gerstenmaier said in a written statement to a Senate subcommittee. “Critically, the vehicle has been ready to fly since mid-September. The current regulatory process is not keeping up with the pace of innovation.”

Because of SpaceX’s iterative process of testing and flying, Gerstenmaier described IFT-2 as needed “in order to test critical systems need to meet NASA objectives.”

NASA’s Human Landing System Program is also eagerly awaiting this next launch to continue the progress towards the version of Starship that will bring humans down to the lunar surface on the Artemis 3 mission, targeting launch in December 2025.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t say we’re concerned about the SpaceX schedule for HLS and the concern is that our critical path, even today, goes through these test flights,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, the HLS program manager in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “And the reason it goes through the test flights is because of SpaceX’s development approach, which I fully support and I really cherish.”

Watson-Morgan said they’re hoping to see the ship-to-ship propellant transfer mission sometime in 2024.

“That is our key. When that day happens, I’m gonna be like, whew!” Watson-Morgan said. “I know we’ll get there.”

Artist’s concept of a Starship on the moon. Credit: SpaceX

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