NASA is worried SpaceX's Starship could destroy its iconic launch pad 39A

But is it worth it?
Chris Young
Starship SN8 exploding in a ball of fire.12

Starship's road to launch has been one of soaring highs and dramatic explosions tempered by grinding regulatory procedures.

SpaceX may have just received clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to launch its fully reusable Starship rocket to orbit from Texas, but another regulatory hurdle could prevent it from reaching the ambitious launch goals set by CEO Elon Musk.

That's because NASA wants SpaceX to provide assurance that its Starship launches won't risk damaging nearby launch infrastructure, a senior space agency official reportedly told Reuters.

The FAA cleared SpaceX to launch from its development site at Boca Chica, Texas, though NASA wants assurances from SpaceX over its second Starship launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, which is very close to its launch complex 39A.

SpaceX faces a constant race against the clock if it's to make true Musk's claim that it will build over 1,000 Starships and send more than a million humans to Mars by the year 2050.

Elon Musk: SpaceX's Starship 'will be ready to fly next month'

The iconic launch pad 39A is a pillar of space history, as it was used for NASA's Apollo 11 launch as well as a number of other historic launches, including SpaceX's first astronaut launch, Demo-2.

According to the Reuters report, NASA is worried that a Starship explosion could cause substantial damage to 39A, which SpaceX currently uses to launch astronauts to the International Space Station for the U.S. space agency. NASA also plans to use the celebrated launch complex to send its Space Launch System (SLS) to the Moon.

NASA's new request can potentially delay Starship's orbital maiden flight. However, the FAA's recent clearance for launch from Boca Chica means it will likely go-ahead from that location.

In a tweet this week, Tuesday, Musk said the launch vehicle "will be ready to fly next month," adding that "we will have a second Starship stack ready to fly in August and then monthly thereafter."

The fully reusable launch vehicle was built with the primary goal of transporting humans to the red planet and making life multi-planetary. However, it will also be used to send humans back to the moon for NASA's Artemis III mission and dispense Starlink 2.0 satellites like a Pez dispenser.

SpaceX wants to strengthen launch pad 39A against the explosive power of Starship

SpaceX has reportedly submitted a proposal to address NASA's concerns about damage to launch infrastructure, including a plan for launching astronauts from a different launch pad to 39A if required. However, this could take months to gain approval from NASA.

Last year, SpaceX accelerated the construction of a Starship launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, which is located a few hundred feet from 39A. This launch pad, called Launch Complex 40, is the subject of its own regulatory review, which is expected to conclude next week.

The private space firm was granted environmental approval for a Starship launch from Cape Canaveral a few years ago. However, Musk explained at a "Starship Update" event in February that it would take "six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there."

Up to now, SpaceX has only launched its Starship SN prototypes from its development site at Boca Chica, Texas. These test flights saw the Starship prototype reach high altitudes several times without reaching orbital space. A number of these test flights carried out impressive flip maneuvers and landings, some of which resulted in dramatic explosions at touchdown — such as the SN8 high-altitude flight test (shown in the video below).

While SpaceX officials highlighted that its SN high-altitude launches were test flights that provided a great deal of useful data, the massive fireballs caused by the Starship prototypes provide a stark indicator of the damage that could occur if an unplanned explosion took place in Florida.

"We all recognize that if you had an early failure like we did on one of the early SpaceX flights, it would be pretty devastating to 39A," Kathy Lueders, NASA's space operations chief, told Reuters in an interview.

"SpaceX is working with us on those things," Lueders explained. "Because it's also in their best interest to not have what is a pretty steady source of income for them become interrupted."

SpaceX is reportedly investigating ways to strengthen 39A against a potential explosion and against the immense force of a successful Starship launch. The company's fully reusable launch vehicle will produce 17 million lbs of thrust thanks to its Raptor V2 engines and it will have the power to launch a massive 300,000 lbs (150 tons) of payload to orbit.

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