SpaceX's Florida Launch Sites Face Intense Scrutiny

3 new launch sites

5/20/20244 min read

SpaceX is preparing to launch its powerful Starship rockets from multiple sites in Florida, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) initiating a new environmental review for SpaceX's operations at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC). This review, announced on May 10, will evaluate SpaceX's plans for launching Starships from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A).

Simultaneously, the US Space Force is conducting a similar Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for SpaceX's proposal to use Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. SLC-37 recently became available after United Launch Alliance's last Delta rocket mission.

These environmental reviews are crucial for SpaceX's goal to have operational Starship launch sites in Florida by the end of 2025. Aerospace consultant George Nield noted that such reviews typically take a couple of years, which could affect SpaceX’s timeline. "A couple of years would not be a surprise," he said.

The FAA's decision on SpaceX's proposals will follow these environmental reviews. Subsequently, the FAA will conduct a separate licensing process, similar to how it licensed the first three Starship test launches from South Texas. This process is essential for ensuring public safety and compliance with environmental laws.

SpaceX has significant contracts with NASA, worth over $4 billion, to develop a version of Starship capable of landing astronauts on the Moon. For this mission, SpaceX plans to use a series of Starship tanker flights to refuel a lunar lander in low-Earth orbit, necessitating multiple launches from at least two pads, potentially alternating between Texas and Florida.

Lisa Watson-Morgan, manager of NASA's human-rated lunar lander program, emphasized the importance of aligning SpaceX's timeline with the FAA's and NASA's schedules to achieve their objectives. "We are working with SpaceX to make sure that their timeline, the EIS timeline, and NASA's all work in parallel as much as we can," she said.

SpaceX aims to perform a dress rehearsal for the Starship lunar landing in late 2025. This will involve refueling missions, an uncrewed lunar landing, and a subsequent takeoff from the Moon. The first crewed Artemis mission using Starship is slated for September 2026.

Despite the environmental review process, SpaceX faces numerous technical challenges. Watson-Morgan highlighted the need for reliable Starship launches, in-orbit refueling capabilities, and a habitable crew cabin for astronauts. These engineering tasks are complex and time-consuming but essential for the success of the Artemis program.

In addition to technical hurdles, SpaceX must construct new Starship launch pads. While some infrastructure exists at LC-39A, critical components like propellant storage and fueling systems are not yet in place. This construction must proceed within the scope of the 2019 environmental assessment until further approval.

The Artemis program involves more than just SpaceX. Axiom Space is developing a new spacesuit for astronauts, and NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft are essential for transporting astronauts to the Moon. These elements must be ready to ensure a timely lunar landing mission.

The timeline for the Artemis III mission in 2026 appears ambitious, prompting NASA to consider revising the flight plan. An alternative could involve docking the Orion crew capsule with Starship in low-Earth orbit before a lunar landing, reducing risks and aligning with the available schedule.

The FAA's commercial space office is underfunded, impacting the speed of the review process. SpaceX has advocated for increased funding to expedite the licensing process, which is critical for the timely launch of Starship missions. Nield commented on the lengthy nature of these reviews, stating, "The fact that it can take years to go through this process is not a good thing."

In a scenario where SpaceX is ready for lunar missions but lacks FAA approval for Florida launches, Watson-Morgan suggested launching all Starship missions from Texas as a conceivable alternative. However, the preferred plan remains to utilize both Texas and Florida launch sites.

SpaceX's 20-year lease for LC-39A, signed in 2014, has already seen 83 missions launched from the pad with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Recent construction activities at LC-39A indicate modifications to accommodate Starship launches, including a potential redesign of the launch mount and the addition of a water deluge system.

Previous environmental assessments from 2019 must be updated to reflect SpaceX's current launch plans, which now project up to 44 Starship flights per year. The proposed Super Heavy booster will also feature more engines than initially planned, requiring revised environmental evaluations.SpaceX's iterative development model for Starship involves continuous testing and improvement. This approach necessitates significant infrastructure at its primary development site, Starbase, in Texas. SpaceX is expanding its facilities there to support higher production and launch rates.

Kathy Lueders of SpaceX highlighted the company's substantial investment in Starbase, where over 3,000 employees work daily. Starbase is intended to be a permanent site for Starship production and testing, with additional launch pads and assembly buildings under construction.

While Starbase is the primary development site, SpaceX plans to operate launch pads in Florida to meet its mission demands. This includes ongoing construction of new facilities at LC-39A and potential future sites like SLC-37 and SLC-50, to support the high launch frequency needed for Starship missions.

SpaceX's shifting plans for Starship in Florida reflect the company's adaptive approach. Initial plans to use mobile offshore platforms for launches have been set aside. Instead, SpaceX is focusing on fixed launch pads at established spaceports like Cape Canaveral.

The development of Starship infrastructure in Florida will enable SpaceX to achieve the launch cadence required for both NASA's Artemis missions and commercial ventures like Starlink satellite deployments. Future expansions may include a rocket factory on Florida's Space Coast to support these operations.

As SpaceX continues to refine its launch strategies, the company's iterative development process and substantial investments at multiple sites underscore its commitment to achieving its ambitious space exploration goals.

Ultimately, the success of SpaceX's plans hinges on timely regulatory approvals, technological advancements, and the seamless integration of various mission elements, all of which are essential for the future of human space exploration.