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Elon Musk ‘highly confident’ in federal approval for first SpaceX orbital launch

SpaceX and its billionaire founder and CEO are awaiting environmental approval from the FAA before the company can launch the Starship rocket into orbit from its South Texas launch site known as Starbase.

(CN) — Standing in front of a massive Starship prototype that he hopes to soon shoot up to Earth's orbit, the moon and Mars, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said Thursday night he was optimistic that the company’s South Texas launch site will receive federal approval to launch "the largest flying object of any kind" by March.

“I feel, at this point, highly confident that we’ll get to orbit this year,” Musk said of the company’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy booster – both still in the testing phase at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, launch site known as Starbase.

Musk’s comments, his first update on the Starship program since 2019, were delivered Thursday night from a stage at Starbase, where he stood in front of a crowd of SpaceX employees, local officials and media for over an hour. During the livestreamed presentation, Musk, 50, offered his thoughts on the need to make life multiplanetary – “There’s always some chance that something could go wrong. The dinosaurs aren’t around anymore,” he said – as well as his goals for Starship and how he expects to make it all happen.

Designed as a rapid and completely reusable rocket system to carry both crew and cargo to Mars and other cosmic destinations, SpaceX has billed the Starship spacecraft as a game-changer for space transportation with the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tons into space.

When stacked together for launch, the Starship and Super Heavy, the massive first-of-its-kind rocket booster that the company is planning to attach under its Starship rocket and launch into orbit sometime this year, will stand at nearly 400 feet tall.

But SpaceX’s plans to launch what would be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever built hinge on whether the Federal Aviation Administration awards the company an environmental permit. The original 2014 environmental study of the Boca Chica operations site only included launches for the much smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX no longer plans to launch from South Texas.

The FAA, whose jurisdiction includes commercial space transportation, pushed back its plans to issue the final programmatic environmental assessment for the Starship project by the end of December because of the high volume of public comments received. A spokesman for the agency said in a December email that it received over 18,000 comments on the project and plans to issue a decision on Feb. 28.

Part of the concern comes from environmental advocates in South Texas who worry that the area’s delicate wetlands and diverse wildlife habitats, which includes over 20,000 acres of federally protected land surrounding the launch site, are caught in the middle. The area is home to at least 18 threatened and endangered species, including birds, wild cats and sea turtles such as the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

But Musk on Thursday said he thinks Starship launching from Boca Chica “is not something that will be harmful to the environment.”

“I think the reality is it would not have a significant impact,” he said, adding that launches could potentially be moved instead to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. That, he said, would be a “worst-case scenario,” since it would delay the project by six to eight months, but could be done because environmental approval has already been granted at the company’s Florida launch site.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, along with local environmental groups like Save RGV and the Lower Rio Grande Valley chapter of the Sierra Club, have each expressed concern with SpaceX’s plans to expand its activities at Boca Chica to include Starship launches.

For now, at least publicly, Musk is hopeful that SpaceX will conduct the first orbital flight of the Starship system in 2022. It would be a giant leap forward in his goal of enabling the colonization of Mars through the creation of a self-sustaining city, which he says Starship is capable of doing because of its ability to transport massive loads to the surface of Mars.

It would also be a significant accomplishment for the 20-year-old company, and one that Musk said may only be open for a short time.

“This is the first point in the 4.5 billion-year history of Earth that it has been possible,” he said. “We need to seize the opportunity.”

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