SpaceX receives launch license for second integrated flight test of Starship

by Adrian Beil

SpaceX has received the modified license No. VOL 23-129 Rev. 1, which will allow them to fly its Starship-Super Heavy vehicle for the second time. This came shortly after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) confirmed the completion of their investigation into the new deluge system at the orbital launch site in Starbase. 

FWS environmental investigation

On Oct. 19, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated an Endangered Species Act consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). During this investigation, the agency had 135 days to issue an amended biological opinion. From day one, the FWS did communicate that it did not expect to take the full 135 days to complete the investigation.

The investigation was started based on Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, which mandates the FWS to review a project should the impact of the project on the environment significantly change or if the amount of change the previously issued license allowed is exceeded.

In SpaceX’s case, this consultation was triggered because of a significant modification to the launch infrastructure at Starbase with the implementation of a new deluge system at the orbital launch pad. Since the deluge system produced so much water that would be released into the surrounding environments and ecosystems, the FWS deemed the investigation necessary. 

During the period, FWS workers were spotted multiple times at Starbase investigating the areas surrounding the orbital launch pad. After concluding the investigation, the FWS submitted the Final Biological and Conference Opinion (BCO) addendum on Nov. 17. The report addresses the impacted environmental baseline and consequences for SpaceX in the future.

The conclusion of the investigation mentions that deluge systems are a widely used system of rocket launch pads around the world and also that the use of the deluge system will help mitigate the impacts of Starship-Super Heavy operations on surrounding environments by reducing sound and vibrations created during liftoff and by assisting in cooling and fire suppression. 

During the investigation, several species living in the Starbase area were mentioned. These species were considered, updated, and investigated to determine whether or not the deluge system would impact their life and surrounding ecosystems. 

The report also demands that SpaceX use drone imagery to monitor the visible extent of water in overland sheet flow discharges and vapor plumes and must summarize and report findings to the FAA and the FWS in each post-launch monitoring report.

While the agency considered the water that would reach the surrounding landscape and the potential for vegetation changes, they do not expect a significant change to the overall salinity of the existing mud flats or other nature-related factors. 

An interesting side note mentioned in the report is that SpaceX expects each launch to be associated with about two static fire engine tests that would use the deluge. This statistic, when combined with launch operations and other tests, means SpaceX expects to use the deluge system up to 30 times per year, which equates to ten launches from Starbase in one year.

Another side note added that a planned additional orbital launch mount would include a deluge system. However, SpaceX still needs to finalize the system design before constructing a second launch pad at Starbase. 

Lastly, the FWS mentioned the “Forward Heat Shield Interstage,” which is seemingly the regulatory name of the Hotstaging ring located at the top of the Super Heavy booster. In this note, the report details that the ring weighs about “20,000 pounds” and might be expendable for some missions, where it will be jettisoned between 30 and 400 kilometers offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

The FAA’s safety review and launch license

Along with the environmental investigation performed by FWS, the FAA also researched the safety aspect of Starship’s launch procedures. This investigation was led by SpaceX and detailed a list of 63 items that would improve the chances of success in flight and reduce the probability of a major malfunction that could endanger the health and safety of those affected by Starship operations. Once SpaceX had finalized the list, the FAA approved the steps and conducted a safety review of the launch procedures. About two-thirds of the changes were related to changing hardware, while about one-third aimed to improve program leadership and oversight.

Booster 9 and its new engine shielding. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

This list also includes the purge system of the Super Heavy Booster to reduce fires in the engine section during future launches and landings.

On Oct. 31, the FAA completed the safety review. The FAA issued a statement that pointed out that this part of the review looks at the applicant’s safety organization, systems safety processes, flight safety analysis, and quantitive risk criteria for launch, reentry, and vehicle disposal.

The completion of the safety review paved the way for the modification of License VOL 23-123, which now includes the permit to fly for a second time. Similar to the first launch license, this second launch license is only viable for the launch of Starship’s second integrated flight test, with the license stating: “For the Orbital Flight Test 2 mission only, unless this license is modified to remove this term.”

This now only allows Starship to fly for a second time. The second flight might trigger another mishap investigation, which would happen if SpaceX does not fully reach all of its flight goals and potentially delay a third license modification, which SpaceX would need to acquire. The FAA again underlined that this license is concluded: “With no significant environmental changes.”

The Road to Launch

With the launch license now received, SpaceX confirmed a flight attempt was set to be as early as Friday, Nov. 17.  However, that was delayed to at least Saturday due to an issue with a Grid Fin actuator. This has also required yet another destack to access the area for the work to take place.

The flight attempt will feature the upgraded hardware and the potential to perform a hot staging maneuver, in which the upper stage will light before the first stage entirely shuts down. This improves efficiency for the overall flight.

(Lead image: Flight Stack Two before stacking at Starbase. Credit: Sean Doherty)

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