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SpaceX Eyes 120 Launches, Rivals Unhappy

SpaceX’s ambitious plan to launch its Starship mega-rocket up to 120 times a year from Florida is raising eyebrows
July 4, 2024

SpaceX’s ambitious plans to launch its Starship mega-rocket up to 44 times per year from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center have stirred up significant concerns among its competitors. Last month, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance (ULA) called on regulators to ensure that SpaceX’s frequent launches don’t disrupt other launch providers. Blue Origin even suggested restricting Starship operations to specific times and giving other providers priority for conflicting launches.

However, SpaceX's ambitions extend beyond this. At a series of public meetings in March, the company revealed plans to launch Starship up to 76 times per year from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. If these plans materialize, SpaceX could launch its next-gen rocket up to 120 times annually within a six-mile radius on the Florida coast.

The U.S. Space Force is preparing a draft environmental assessment to be released this winter, detailing SpaceX’s anticipated launch schedule. A representative noted that these numbers could change, influenced by Starship’s development pace or environmental factors like the presence of scrub jay nests, a threatened bird species native to Florida.

As recently as a few weeks ago, SpaceX’s competitors were still using the figure of 76 annual launches as a benchmark for the company’s plans. SpaceX has yet to comment on these developments.

SLC-37, a historic launch pad previously used by NASA’s Saturn rockets and ULA’s Delta IV series, is currently inactive. The Space Force announced in February that it would begin an environmental impact statement to examine the effects of Starship launches from this site. The Federal Aviation Administration is conducting a similar study for SpaceX’s operations at Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A. These studies will assess the environmental impact of launching and landing operations, including the return of Super Heavy boosters.

The Space Force's environmental impact statement for SLC-37 also considers an alternative: constructing a new launch pad, designated SLC-50. Both scenarios would require significant infrastructure, including deluge ponds, fuel tanks, and a catch tower, potentially leading to up to 120 combined launches per year from both sites.

In addition to the two Florida launch pads, SpaceX’s Starship operations include a launch tower at its Starbase facility in southeast Texas, with a second tower under construction. Soon, SpaceX could have four operational Starship launch sites.

CEO Elon Musk envisions Starship as a key vehicle for colonizing Mars and "expanding the light of consciousness" throughout the cosmos. He aims to launch Starship multiple times per day, with each flight delivering hundreds of tons of cargo to low Earth orbit or beyond. To support this vision, SpaceX plans to ramp up its Starship manufacturing facilities to produce one Starship second stage per day.

As part of the regulatory process, the public was invited to comment on the scope of SpaceX’s plans before the draft environmental impact statement was published. While the public comments on SLC-37 are not yet available, feedback on pad 39A at Kennedy includes strong objections from Blue Origin and ULA. Both companies are concerned about the potential disruption and environmental impact of SpaceX’s high flight rate.

ULA highlighted the risk of significant disruptions to other launch operations, noting that even one Starship launch site could cause substantial environmental impacts. Blue Origin, aiming to launch its New Glenn rocket from LC-36 at Cape Canaveral, proposed several mitigating measures. These included requiring SpaceX or the government to indemnify third parties for losses caused by Starship operations, including commercial disruptions.

As SpaceX pushes forward with its ambitious launch plans, the company will need to navigate regulatory challenges and address the concerns of its competitors. The outcomes of the environmental assessments and public comments will play a crucial role in shaping the future of Starship’s operations on the Florida coast.

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