SpaceX faces NASA hurdle for Starship backup launch pad

SpaceX faces NASA hurdle for Starship backup launch pad

Prototype spacecraft are pictured at the SpaceX South Texas launch site near Brownsville, Texas, U.S., May 22, 2022. Picture taken May 22, 2022. REUTERS/Veronica G. Cardenas

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WASHINGTON, June 13 (Reuters) – NASA wants Elon Musk’s SpaceX to make sure its plan to launch its next-generation Starship rocket from Florida won’t jeopardize nearby launch infrastructure critical to the International Space Station, a senior space agency official told Reuters.

The new hurdle further complicates and could potentially delay the launch plan for the rocket, which is facing an already protracted regulatory review from its main launch site in Texas. Musk wants to show customers that Starship, which he sees as humanity’s path to Mars, can successfully reach orbit, a long-delayed crucial step in rocket development.

SpaceX’s proposals to address NASA concerns, which include a plan to be able to launch American astronauts from another launch pad in Florida, could take months to get the agency’s approval.

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SpaceX last year accelerated construction of a Starship orbital launch pad at its Cape Canaveral, Florida facility as an alternative to the rocket’s main launch and test development site in Boca Chica, Texas. , which has undergone a lengthy regulatory review that is expected to conclude shortly. the week.

But one of SpaceX’s existing facilities in Florida, called Launch Complex 39A, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the Cape Canaveral coast, is the only platform approved to launch the company’s Crew Dragon capsule. NASA depends on this spacecraft to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station.

In recent months, NASA officials have told SpaceX that a spacecraft explosion at Launch Complex 39A could effectively cut off the space agency’s only means of launching American astronauts to the International Space Station.

“We all recognize that if you had an early failure like we did on one of the first SpaceX flights, it would be pretty devastating for 39A,” Kathy Lueders, NASA chief of space operations, said in an interview. on the agency’s discussions with SpaceX.

SpaceX did not return a request for comment.

SpaceX has already invested heavily in building a Starship pad a few hundred feet from Pad 39A’s launch tower. He responded by offering NASA a plan to outfit its other Florida hub — Launch Complex 40, five miles away on Space Force property — with the means to launch American astronauts, according to a report. person familiar with the plans.

The company is also exploring ways to “strengthen” the 39A or make the launch pad more resistant to both an explosive spacecraft crash and the immense forces emitted from a successful spacecraft liftoff, Lueders said.

Hardening pad 39A and launching humans from pad 40 would both require agency approval.

“SpaceX is working with us on these things,” Lueders said. “Because it’s also in their interest not to interrupt what is a fairly stable source of income for them.”

Part of SpaceX’s challenge is to show that 39A won’t be harmed by Starship’s new liquid oxygen-methane fuel — a combination of thrusters that NASA and U.S. regulators don’t know about.

“The problem is that the explosive potential of this suit is not well known,” said Randy Repcheck, deputy director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which oversees launch pad safety. .

Starship is a reusable two-stage rocket system designed to launch commercial satellites into Earth orbit and humans to the Moon and Mars. Last year, NASA chose SpaceX to use Starship for the agency’s first launch of American astronauts to the lunar surface since the days of the Apollo program.

The rocket’s next big test, a complex first-time launch-to-orbit task, has been delayed in part by regulatory review of the Texas complex’s environmental impact, which prevented the FAA from granting SpaceX its orbital launch license.

Scheduled to end on Monday, the review is expected to impose conditions on SpaceX that could add delays to its Starship program. That prospect led Musk to double down last year on building Starship’s launch pad at Florida’s 39A at Cape Canaveral.

“We have the Cape Town alternative, and we actually applied for an environmental clearance to launch from Cape Town a few years ago and received it,” Musk said at a “Starship Update” event in April. February, estimating that it would take “six to eight months to build the Cape Town launch tower and launch from there.

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Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Leslie Adler

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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