SpaceX Makes Progress on Second Test of Starship
On Saturday morning, SpaceX conducted its second test launch of Starship, the super heavy–lift rocket that could one day carry astronauts to the moon and Mars. The vehicle lifted off without incident from SpaceX’s Starbase, on the southern tip of Texas, just after 7 a.m. local time. A new water-deluge system deflected the heat of the booster’s 33 Raptor engines, preventing the kind of launchpad damage that occurred during the first launch last April—that test ended in self-detonation four minutes into flight, when the ship and the booster failed to separate. For the second run, SpaceX converted the rocket to a “hot staging” system, with the ship’s six Raptor engines starting to fire, blasting the top of the booster, as the separation process began. This time, the uncoupling was successful. The booster broke apart shortly thereafter. The second stage carried on another five minutes, rising 90 miles skyward before exploding.
More than twice as powerful as the Apollo program’s Saturn V—and designed to be reusable to boot—Starship is already a marvel of human planning and perseverance. But many more launches must occur before it can carry humans into space. It will be a challenge to establish that Starship is reliable, that it can refuel in orbit (a key part of the plan), and that it can safely land on, and take off from, the moon.
Yet all that might be the easy part. Everything depends on SpaceX’s ability to jump through regulatory hoops, and the federal bureaucracy’s ability to keep pace with a driven private company.
SpaceX was ready for the second test of Starship by early September. Two weeks later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that it had yet to begin the environmental review needed for a launch license. “That is unacceptable,” Elon Musk fumed on X. “It is absurd that SpaceX can build a giant rocket faster than they can shuffle paperwork!” Absurd, yes—but hardly unexpected.
The agency moved swiftly—by the standards of the federal government—issuing its review eight weeks later. The main revelation, in line with prior such reviews, is that the Starship program has remarkably little impact on the environment. The new deluge system is of a piece. Most of the more than 300,000 gallons of water emitted during a launch is vaporized by the booster’s flame and floats harmlessly away. Most of the water that’s left is collected in containment vats. The small quantity of remaining runoff would probably be safe to drink.
Reading these reports, you learn not that SpaceX poses a risk to the environment, but that over-the-top environmental regulations pose a risk to SpaceX. A firm devoted to building rockets finds itself counting birds, combing the be
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