Elon Musk said on Thursday that despite a slew of technical and regulatory roadblocks, he is “very sure” that his new SpaceX Starship, which is aimed for missions to the moon and Mars, would reach Earth orbit for the first time this year.
At his company’s “Starbase” facility in Boca Chica, Texas, the billionaire SpaceX founder and CEO addressed a swarm of news journalists and supporters for a presentation that blended a high-tech pep rally with big-screen videos and a question-and-answer session.
It happened nine months after the private California-based space enterprise launched and landed a Starship prototype rocket in a test mission for the first time after four prior landing attempts ended in explosions.
Musk noted that developing the “Raptor 2” engines for SpaceX’s Super Heavy rocket, a reusable next-generation launch booster planned to deliver the Starship spacecraft to orbit, has been difficult. He noted issues with extreme heat melting inside the thruster chambers of the engines.
“We’re really near to fixing it,” he said, adding that he expects to increase production to around seven or eight engines per week by next month, and to create a new Starship and booster every month by the end of the year.
“At this point, I’m very sure that we’ll go to orbit (with the Starship) this year,” said Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla (TSLA.O).
Even for an uncrewed orbital test flight of the Super Heavy/Starship combo, the next step up from SpaceX’s current workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, which Musk claims has flown 144 successful launches and 106 return landings, such a time schedule would be ambitious.
However, the Federal Aviation Administration is currently conducting an environmental study of the Boca Chica test-flight and manufacturing facility, which is located near the southeastern Gulf Coast tip of Texas.
The FAA is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether a planned build-out there poses a significant environmental impact to the area – including an adjacent wildlife reserve – and, as a result, whether expanded operations at Boca Chica must undergo a far more extensive study before they can be licenced.
EIS studies, or environmental impact statements, can take years to complete and are frequently the subject of litigation.
When asked about the progress of the FAA review, Musk responded, “”We don’t have a lot of information about where things stand with the FAA,” he said, adding, “but we have gotten a rough estimate that a clearance could come in March.” But that’s the extent of our knowledge.”
Even in the “worst-case” situation, Musk said SpaceX has a backup plan in case a complete EIS is necessary or legal fighting over the matter drags on. Musk stated that the business would relocate its whole Starship programme to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where it already has the necessary environmental approval.
He noted that such a change would result in a six- to eight-month delay.
In any event, SpaceX is still aiming for a 2023 launch of what it calls the “world’s first private lunar trip,” which will transport Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and a dozen artists around the moon and back to Earth aboard a Starship.