FAA seeks to wrap up Starship safety review in October

FAA seeks to wrap up Starship safety review in October

WASHINGTON — The head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space transportation office says he believes that the FAA can wrap up safety reviews needed to update the SpaceX Starship launch license by the end of October, but than a concurrent environmental review is a “wild card” to that schedule.

In a Sept. 18 interview, Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said his office was working well with SpaceX to confirm that the company had implemented the corrective actions from a mishap investigation the FAA formally closed on Sept. 8 related to public safety.

Coleman said that, of the 63 corrective actions listed in the mishap report, 27 are linked to public safety. “So one thing that we’ll need to see before the next operation is evidence that shows that the company has closed out the corrective actions that are specifically tied to public safety,” he said.

That is tied to a modification to the launch license FAA issued to SpaceX for the Starship/Super Heavy launch in April. That license was effective for just the single launch that took place April 20, requiring the company to request the FAA modify it to enable additional launches, something that would have been required regardless of the outcome of the launch.

“We’re on a pretty good schedule,” he said, affirming comments made by the FAA’s acting administrator, Polly Trottenberg, at a conference Sept. 13, where she projected that a modified license could be ready in October. “It’ll probably set us somewhere in mid to late October for conclusion of the safety review.”

He added, though, that completing the safety review alone will not be sufficient for the license modification. A separate environmental review is needed to examine changes to launch site infrastructure, including a water deluge system intended to minimize pad damage suffered in the April launch.

That review is being carried out in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to comply with the Endangered Species Act. A spokesperson for that agency said Sept. 19 that the Fish and Wildlife Service is “discussing the project details with FAA staff to understand the extent of new effects” of the water deluge system.

“Once the Service reviews FAA’s final biological assessment and deems it complete, consultation will be reinitiated. We have 135 days to issue a final biological opinion,” the agency stated.

“That piece is a little bit of a wild card,” Coleman said of that environmental review. “We’re hoping that piece will wrap up somewhere in proximity to the safety review.”

While the FAA has been the subject of criticism for appearing to slow down SpaceX, Coleman said his office has a good working relationship with the company, talking regularly with SpaceX executives. “I think we’re all striving to solve immediate challenges that are in front of us, but also think more strategically, down the line, in terms of how can we better our relationship and how can we better engage as different applications come our way in the future.”

Those discussions included a visit last week by Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and chief executive, who met with Trottenberg, Deputy Administrator Katie Thomson and Coleman about the licensing process. “We had a good conversation with him,” he said.

“I think the relationship is working pretty well,” he concluded, while noting that SpaceX is “pushing hard” to fly again as soon as possible so it can make progress on missions that will use Starship, like the Artemis lunar lander variant. “There’s some challenges we have to work through from time to time.”

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