A time slot for SpaceX’s Starship orbital test on NASA’s calendar has been removed, adding new uncertainties around the highly anticipated flight of the world’s largest privately developed rocket.
Starship, standing at 394 feet tall when fully stacked, is designed to fly humans to Mars and the Moon someday. SpaceX has been test flying the upper stage of Starship since 2019 but only to as high as 10 kilometers (6 miles) in the sky. An orbital flight is a key step before the rocket can fly to outer space.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and President Gwynne Shotwell both recently said the company is aiming to test launch a fully stacked Starship to Earth’s orbit in March. Their estimate was confirmed by a NASA calendar, which as of last week showed a placeholder for “SpaceX Starship launch” on March 11. The placeholder was removed as of today (Feb. 21).
The calendar in question is managed by NASA’s Airborne Science Program, which coordinates a set of aircraft to monitor and record spacecraft activities during tests and missions. The placeholder for the Starship launch on the calendar meant NASA was planning to fly a plane along with the SpaceX rocket on March 11.
NASA didn’t respond to an inquiry about the scheduling change.
SpaceX is inches away from launching Starship
SpaceX recently achieved a major engineering milestone that paved the way for launching Starship into Earth’s orbit.
On Feb. 8, SpaceX successfully fired up 31 of Starship’s 33 engines in a static fire test, setting the world record for the most rocket engines ignited at the same time. The test was one of the final steps before the actual launch. SpaceX originally hoped to fire up all 33 engines, but the result was good enough.
“Starship orbital launch attempt soon!” Musk tweeted on Feb. 12.
On the regulatory side, however, SpaceX still has to settle a few issues with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which issues launch licenses for all space missions in the U.S.
SpaceX hasn’t received a license from the FAA to launch Starship just yet. The federal agency completed a lengthy environmental review of the proposed test in June last year and required SpaceX to take more than 75 actions to mitigate environmental impacts related to the flight.
“The FAA will make a license determination only after the agency is satisfied SpaceX meets all licensing, safety and other regulatory requirements,” an FAA spokesperson said in an email.
On Feb. 17, the FAA issued a $175,000 fine against SpaceX for failing to submit required data for a Falcon 9 mission in August 2022. The agency alleged SpaceX didn’t submit launch collision analysis trajectory data prior to the mission, which sent a batch of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. Those data are needed to assess the probability of a spacecraft colliding with one of the thousands of tracked objects orbiting Earth, according to an FAA notice.
It was the first time the FAA proposed a civil penalty for a rocket operator failing to submit data before a launch. SpaceX was given 30 days to respond to the FAA’s notice.
An FAA spokesperson said the penalty is unrelated to SpaceX’s other missions, including the Starship test.
SpaceX didn’t respond to a request to comment on the FAA fine or the estimated launch date of Starship.