SpaceX has certainly been on a roll recently. The company’s Falcon 9 has been very busy, launching a probe to measure the rise of the Earth’s oceans, another batch of the Starlink constellation, and a planned cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS) in less than two weeks. SpaceX became the first private company to launch people into space in 2020, most recently four new crewmembers to the ISS.
SpaceX is creating a great deal of excitement with its development and testing of the Starship rocket in Boca Chica, Texas. A prototype of the Starship, the SN8, has been scheduled for a test flight of 15 kilometers. The test of the vehicle, a stainless-steel tower with fins and a nose cone that brings to mind more Buck Rogers than Neil Armstrong, may have already happened by the time this article goes live. Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskOn the Money: Dow breaks 30,000 for first time as Biden transition ramps up | Consumer confidence falls as COVID-19 rages | Grocery, retail workers urge reinstatement of hazard pay ahead of holiday rush Elon Musk passes Bill Gates to become world’s second-richest person in Bloomberg rankings SpaceX capsule arrives at International Space Station MORE suggested one in three odds that the SN8 would land intact.
However, according to space journalist Robert Zimmerman, not everyone is excited about the prospect of a private company launching giant rocket ships from south Texas. Government regulators both in Texas and on the federal level may want to start slowing SpaceX down.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) originally granted environmental impact approvals for the Boca Chica space port when SpaceX was still planning to launch Falcon 9s and Falcon Heavies from the Texas Gulf Coast. However, since then, SpaceX has turned Boca Chica into a test facility for the Starship/Super Heavy spacecraft. Environmental regulators have raised concerns about how launches and landings of the new SpaceX rocket ship could affect wildlife and nearby ecosystems.
Thus far the FAA, the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing commercial space launches, has suggested that current tests of the Starship have or will meet “all pertinent conditions and requirements of the prior approval.” Apparently, this is not the case for full suborbital and orbital flights with the Starship/Super Heavy system.
The Starship, a reusable rocket that would be capable of taking 100 tons of people and cargo to the moon and Mars, would be launched by the also reusable Super Heavy first stage. The combined flight vehicle would be the largest, most powerful rocket ever built.
The FAA is working with SpaceX to draft an environmental review of its plans to make Boca Chica a space port for the Starship. The FAA has declared that, “The proposed update to Starship/Super Heavy operations falls outside of the scope of the existing final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of Decision for the launch site and requires additional environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).”
President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump floats a Doug Collins run against Kemp for Georgia governor Defiant Trump insists election was ‘rigged’ at rally for Georgia Senate Republicans Trump offers condolences to family, friends of Loeffler campaign staffer who died MORE has a decidedly business-friendly approach to government regulations. He was, after all, a builder in a previous life. He has long experience in dealing with government bureaucrats to get permission to construct his hotels and golf clubs. Furthermore, the Trump administration has a keen awareness about what sort of a national asset the SpaceX Starship could be.
The incoming Biden administration is likely to have a more traditional view of government regulation. It will regard regulation as a necessary function to keep private business in line, to make sure that it doesn’t take advantage of the environment in pursuit of profit.
As a result, under President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump floats a Doug Collins run against Kemp for Georgia governor Defiant Trump insists election was ‘rigged’ at rally for Georgia Senate Republicans Biden victory, vaccine and an anniversary: good karma for the Mediterranean? MORE, the alliance that the government has with SpaceX is likely to end. Government will assume its accustomed role as an adversary to the commercial sector. SpaceX will likely be required to go through the environmental impact process all over again. The process, as Zimmerman suggests, could take years.
Absent government red tape, Musk hopes to have his Starship operational in a few years. A version of SpaceX’s rocket ship is a candidate for NASA’s Artemis Human Landing System competition for a return to the moon. Musk expects to start shipping cargo and eventually people to Mars in the current decade, a boast that many people find incredible. NASA plans to have astronauts on the Red Planet by the 2030s at the earliest.
Musk could finance this operation by selling services from the Starlink constellation, a satellite system that promises to bring the Internet to every part of the planet. In effect, SpaceX would become a space power independent of NASA or any other government customer.
These heady dreams may go crashing to Earth if the incoming Biden administration inflicts the heavy hand of government on SpaceX’s operations. The development would be a tragedy but also the consequences of an election that was perhaps decided unwisely.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.