Elon Musk's Starship Launch Delayed Due To Litigation, Refueling Experiment Tomorrow

There was supposed to be a triple-stacked Starship launch this week, but due to a lawsuit and a missing environmental assessment, the launch was delayed. As a result, the next Starship flight is likely weeks away, unless the FAA grants a waiver to SpaceX, which Musk has openly criticized.

SpaceX was due to launch the Starship Suborbital Track Tranche Flight (STTF) mission, its first this year, on Wednesday from its Starbase facility in Texas. The company stacked Starship 2464 and Super Heavy Booster 7 on the launch pad, ready for the flight. But, on Tuesday, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ordered a delay until February 26 to allow for an environmental assessment of the launch facility's plans for up to 12 launches a year, according to CNBC.

SpaceX had already planned to conduct a static fire of the Super Heavy booster alone on February 2, which it did successfully, paving the way for the planned launch on Wednesday. But now, it must wait for the court date to resolve the lawsuit filed by two nonprofit organizations, the Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Resources Defense Fund and the Protect Democracy Project. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday, claims that SpaceX's Starbase launch site is located in a culturally sensitive area with a history of archeological artifacts, and any launches must be put on hold until the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is completed.

SpaceX had avoided this requirement previously by applying for a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waiver, which the agency granted in 2021, allowing it to launch Starship to orbit without an EIS. However, this waiver only applied to a single launch site at Starbase, and the lawsuit argues that SpaceX is required to undergo environmental assessments for its Texas facilities, including its production and processing sites.

The delay comes as a blow to Elon Musk, who criticized the FAA on Twitter for the regulations, claiming that the process had become "a farce," and saying that the agency should grant SpaceX a waiver for the upcoming flight. The FAA subsequently issued a statement on Wednesday, saying that it and other agencies had worked tirelessly to accommodate SpaceX's launch schedule, and that the lawsuit had introduced last-minute changes.

The FAA is constrained by several laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires archeological studies that may be impacted by the launch. The launch delay could further impact SpaceX's ambitious plan to launch its Starship to Mars, with no viable replacement windows available this month should the current launch be delayed much further. The lawsuit would need to be resolved quickly and favorably for SpaceX if it wants to get off the ground before the end of February.

This doesn't mean we won't see any Starship action this week, however. The company is expected to conduct a refueling experiment tomorrow, February 8, at the Starbase facility. This will involve fueling the Starship with supercooled propellant and then detaching the Super Heavy booster, which will be held in place by the launch tower.

This is a significant milestone for SpaceX's plans for Starship, as the company has not yet been able to successfully achieve a dry launch and landing with the massive spacecraft. Once the Super Heavy booster is detached, Starship is expected to lift itself off the ground and attempt a landing on its finned legs. We will have to wait and see whether the upcoming test will be successful and if it will be smooth sailing ahead for SpaceX and Starship, or whether further delays will hamper the company's plans.

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