The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has delayed its environmental decision on SpaceX Starship launches until May

SpaceX Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

Michael Schitz | CNBC

The Federal Aviation Administration has postponed its environmental review of the SpaceX Starship rocket program in Texas for the fourth time, pushing the decision to the end of May.

SpaceX needs a license from the FAA to conduct further flight tests of the Starship and begin operational launches from its private facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The FAA, which began its environmental review in November 2020, has postponed its decision three times in the past five months – from December 31 to February 28, from March 28 to April 29 – and now expects to release the assessment. May 31.

“The FAA is working on releasing the Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA)…SpaceX has made several changes to its application that require additional review by the FAA. The agency continues to review approximately 18,000 comments from the general public,” the regulator said in a statement.

Starship is a nearly 400-foot reusable rocket that SpaceX is developing with the goal of creating a vehicle capable of transporting cargo and groups of people off Earth. The rocket and its Super Heavy booster are powered by SpaceX Raptor engines.

SpaceX has completed several high-altitude flight tests of Starship prototypes, but its next major step is spaceflight. While this milestone was expected to be reached last year, development progress has been delayed. Orbital flight tests are also awaiting regulatory approval.

In February, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk held a Starship presentation at Starbase in Texas, outlining the way forward and obstacles for testing the rocket.

Musk said at the time that SpaceX had “rough indications that approval could be in place in March.” But, in line with FAA delays, Musk has since said he hopes SpaceX can launch Starship’s first orbital flight in May, which, after Friday’s FAA update, has now been pushed back to no earlier than June.

One of Musk and SpaceX’s considerations is what the company will do with its Starship development program if the FAA decides a deeper assessment is needed. Musk said that in that scenario, which would likely mean a break in Starbase’s launch for additional years, moving Starship operations to Cape Canaveral in Florida would be the most likely alternative. SpaceX has already begun building a launch pad for Starship at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which SpaceX is leasing from the agency.

“In the worst case, we … will be delayed for six to eight months to build a launch tower on the cape and launch [Starship] from there,” Musk said in February.

The ongoing regulatory review represents another item on Musk’s varied list of projects: The billionaire sold more than $8 billion worth of Tesla shares this week as he works to take Twitter down.

Prototypes of the SpaceX Starship rocket and Super Heavy launch vehicle are based at Starbase in Texas.

Michael Schitz | CNBC

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