July 13, 2024

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Here’s Why SpaceX’s Competitors Are Upset Over Starship Plans

Here’s Why SpaceX’s Competitors Are Upset Over Starship Plans
Zoom in / SpaceX launches Falcon 9 rockets from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Station. The company plans to develop Starship launch infrastructure at Pad 39A and Pad 37. United Launch Alliance launches Vulcan and Atlas 5 rockets from Pad 41, and Blue Origin will base its New Glenn rocket at Pad 36.

NASA (Labels by Ars Technica)

United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin have expressed concerns about SpaceX’s plans to launch its massive Starship rocket from Florida.

In documents filed with the Federal Aviation Administration last month, ULA and Blue Origin raised concerns about the impact of Starship launches on their operations on Florida’s Space Coast. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company, urged the federal government to consider capping the number of Starship launches and landings, test launches and other operations, and restricting SpaceX’s operations to certain times.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk called Blue Origin’s FAA filing “clearly a disingenuous response. It’s not appropriate that they are trying (for the third time) to block SpaceX’s progress through legal action.” We’ll get to that in a moment.

The Federal Aviation Administration and SpaceX are preparing an environmental impact statement for the launches and landings of the Super Heavy and Starship rockets at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, while the U.S. Space Force is working with SpaceX on a similar environmental review for Starship flights from Space Launch Complex 37 at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Station.

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Those reviews likely won’t be completed until late 2025 at the earliest, and only then will SpaceX get the green light to launch Starship from Florida. SpaceX also needs to build the launch infrastructure at both sites, which could take two years. That’s already underway at Launch Complex 39A.

Big missile with big footprint

During the environmental review process, the FAA must weigh the regularity of reusable spacecraft flights — up to 120 launches per year, According to TechCrunch– It will affect other launch providers operating at Cape Canaveral, according to ULA and Blue Origin. SpaceX’s proposed final launch cadence from each site will be part of draft environmental assessments that will be released for public comment later this year.

SpaceX plans to launch Starlink satellites, customer payloads and missions to support NASA’s Artemis lunar landing program from launch pads in Florida. Building and operating the Florida launch pad is one of several hurdles facing SpaceX as it develops a lunar-landing version of Starship, along with demonstrating orbital refueling.

Starship Super Heavy launches and landings “are expected to have a greater environmental impact than any other launch system currently operating at Kennedy Space Center or Pacific Space Center,” Blue Origin wrote. In its current configuration, Starship is the most powerful rocket in history, and SpaceX is developing a larger version that will stand 492 feet (150 meters) tall with nearly 15 million pounds (6,700 metric tons) of fuel. That larger variant is the one that will launch from Cape Canaveral.

“It’s a very big rocket, and it’s getting bigger,” wrote ULA CEO Tory Bruno. In a post on X“This amount of fuel requires an evacuation area when refuelling, including other people’s facilities. The (weekly) release has harmful sound levels all the way into the city. Cape Town is not for monopoly.”

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SpaceX's Starship rocket lifts off from Starbase during its second test flight in Boca Chica, Texas, on November 18, 2023.
Zoom in / SpaceX’s Starship rocket lifts off from Starbase during its second test flight in Boca Chica, Texas, on November 18, 2023.

At SpaceX’s launch site in South Texas, the evacuation zone is set at 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) away when Starship and Super Heavy are being fueled with methane and liquid oxygen. During an actual launch, the checkpoint is further out, more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the pad.

“The overall launch capacity of Cape Canaveral Rocket will be reduced if other providers are forced to evacuate their facilities whenever a vehicle is refueled,” Bruno wrote.

We don’t yet know the radius of the Starship-excluded zones in Florida, but Blue Origin wrote that the impact of Starship’s operations in Florida “may be greater than Starbase,” possibly because of the larger rocket SpaceX plans to launch from Cape Canaveral. If that’s the case, nearby launch pads would have to be evacuated during Starship operations.

Given Cape Canaveral’s geography, ULA appears to have a bigger concern. Its Vulcan and Atlas V launch pad is less than 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A). ULA said SpaceX’s proposal to conduct up to 44 launches from LC-39A “would result in significant airspace and ground closures, create significant acoustic effects in nearby operations, and could result in debris, particulate matter, and property damage.”

United Alliance said these risks could prevent it from fulfilling its contracts to launch important national security satellites for the U.S. military.

“Being the largest rocket in existence, an accident would cause serious or even catastrophic damage, while normal launches would leave a cumulative impact on the launch vehicle’s structures, hardware, and other critical launch support equipment,” ULA said.

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