Elon Musk’s Starship dreams could be extinguished before the mega-rocket has even left the ground, as US regulators assess its potential environmental damage.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to publish its assessment on Monday. The report, a year in the making, has been pushed back several times since December, with delays bleeding into February, then March, April and so on.
However, Musk’s rocky history with regulators could come back to bite SpaceX – on which a wider, freshly entrepreneurial, space industry hangs.
SpaceX received backlash from the FAA back in December 2020 with an unauthorised low-altitude flight test of the Starship spacecraft and also caught a warning in 2021, regarding the construction of a tower at Starbase in Boca Chica, which the FAA said could “complicate the ongoing environmental review process for the Starship/Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Program.”
Amid a new era of environmentally focussed investments, SpaceX may be pushed out of favour should the report be particularly damning, as it could pile more pressure onto the company in the wake of criticism over its mass of satellite debris.
“Many have commented on the cognitive dissonance between growing environmental concerns and the emerging space economy,” associate analyst at GlobalData, Francesca Gregory told City A.M., describing the looming report as a “pain point” for the launcher.
“Previously, Starship’s key challenge has been pushing the laws of physics to maximize its payload and economic viability. However, the landscape has since changed. SpaceX will likely need to clear several regulatory hurdles just to get its new ship off the ground.”
Beyond scuppering hopes of a Starship launch this year, the report may weigh on investment into Musk’s space venture, alongside the industry’s smaller players.
“SpaceX isn’t publicly owned but a fresh delay could act as a drag on the company’s efforts to raise fresh funding for its ventures from private investors,” explained senior markets and investments analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, Susannah Streeter.
And a highly critical report which requires further assessment could “throw up more potential hurdles at proposed launch pads in states across the US and in other countries around the world, where falling costs have prompted a wave of entrepreneurial activity,” continued Streeter.
“SpaceX’s trial by fire will set the example for other companies looking to consolidate their position in the launch business,” added Gregory. “Many companies have their sights set on space but neglecting environmental problems at home will bring their aspirations crashing down to Earth.”