Support for SpaceX stems from its history, which is unique compared to other space companies. “Now SpaceX is no longer an unknown, brazen company that needs to prove itself. It is now NASA’s most reliable and efficient contractor,” notes Dreier. “In the world, only three entities have the capacity to launch people into space independently: Russia, China and SpaceX. The US government no longer has this capacity. »
A geopolitical emergency has resurfaced in spaceflight, and without SpaceX, NASA would continue to buy rides from Russia to transport its astronauts into space. Furthermore, Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, presents the Chinese lunar program as a rival to Artemis which could reach the lunar surface before it, which attests to the competition which has taken place between the countries. The success of SpaceX is essential for NASA if it wishes to maintain its place in this new space race.
According to the current schedule, the first moon landing of Artemis by NASA should take place in 2025. Delays are expected, however, particularly with regard to NASA’s Space Launch System, the rocket that will transport astronauts from the Florida to lunar orbit, where a Starship will await them for the descent to the Moon. This essential place within NASA’s lunar program gives SpaceX significant influence, in Washington DC and beyond.
The branch of the US government that has the most influence over SpaceX is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This may come as a surprise to SpaceX fans, but given its often destructive launches, the agency has actually been rather conciliatory with the company. Although the time required to obtain FAA approvals delayed the Starship program by several months, the requirements placed on SpaceX in terms of hardware modifications and mitigation of environmental impacts have been rather moderate.
Since the last explosive test flight, the FAA has already begun to collect the information necessary for approval of the next launch. As required by the Endangered Species Act, a U.S. federal law designed to protect endangered species, the agency worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to approve each of the changes to the rocket and launch pad. In the case of this second test, the problem was with the new deluge system, which sprayed up to 1.3 million liters of water, most of which was turned into steam, during Starship’s liftoff. This water was intended to cool a new steel plate installed by SpaceX to protect its launch pad, which had suffered significant damage during Starship’s first test flight last April.
The pressure on the FWS didn’t just come from Musk’s X account. A week before Saturday’s launch, NASA administrator Nelson told the Washington Post : “It is essential for us that SpaceX can test its rocket. » Tony Gonzales and Vicente Gonzalez, two U.S. Representatives (a Democrat and a Republican, both from South Texas), sent a public letter to the FWS requesting rapid approval. “The United States is currently engaged in a space race with the rest of the world,” they wrote. “The federal government must not hinder the development of public companies that push the United States to remain a leader in the field of space exploration. »
Last Wednesday, the FWS and FAA announced that the new deluge system was covered by an existing launch permit filed in 2022. “No significant environmental changes have been observed,” the FAA affirmed, authorizing the launch of SATURDAY.
Permissive decisions like this are now usual, despite the scale of the rocket and incidents linked to the fall of flaming debris in public nature reserves. Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a local environmental organization, accused the FAA of being “almost a partner” with SpaceX. His group joined the Sierra Club, among other organizations, in filing a lawsuit against the state of Texas in an effort to stop megarocket testing, saying officials had violated the state’s constitution. The state is making exceptions for the SpaceX launch site on Boca Chica Beach. The action failed in September, removing one of the few obstacles to Starship’s testing ambitions at the Texas site.
Elon Musk has triumphed in court, challenged regulators and dominated the commercial space launch industry. Despite these undeniable capabilities of exploitation, manipulation and persuasion, science and physics will however constitute the only factors which can really decide the success of the Starship project. “I think they have a good chance of succeeding,” Dreier admits of the rocket. “But this still remains prove. »
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