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The signs are always there when the next big rocket launch is around the corner: social media chatter picks up, hotels sell out, press conferences get underway, and thousands gather to support and spectate.
But this time, the buzz doesn't revolve around Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Instead, all eyes are on the southernmost tip of Texas, where SpaceX is gearing up to launch its massive Starship system on its first orbital flight attempt.
If everything goes according to plan, this will mark the first time the combined system – Super Heavy booster below and Starship vehicle on top – takes flight from Starbase, a SpaceX-owned facility just outside Brownsville, Texas. Previous test flights, which often ended explosively, only featured the Starship vehicle itself, but this time the combined 400-foot vehicle is taking flight.
SpaceX is currently targeting no earlier than 7 a.m. CDT Monday, April 17, for Starship and Super Heavy’s debut. The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday evening confirmed it had granted SpaceX its launch license.
“After a comprehensive license evaluation process, the FAA determined SpaceX met all safety, environmental, policy, payload, airspace integration and financial responsibility requirements,” the FAA said in a release.
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Though SpaceX is perhaps most well-known for landing its Falcon 9 boosters on land and drone ships, Starship will be doomed to a watery grave for this mission.
After liftoff from Starbase, Starship and Super Heavy will fly east over the Gulf of Mexico. Once the booster's job is done, it will attempt a soft landing in the waters of the Gulf. Starship will continue on through the Straits of Florida, perform one orbit, and, to ensure public safety, end in the Pacific Ocean with a controlled water landing of its own.
There is no customer payload flying on this demonstration mission. To date, SpaceX is estimated to have spent at least several billion dollars on the Starship program.
Part of NASA's Artemis program
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Though the space industry overall will be closely watching Starship's first flight, one organization has a personal, far-reaching stake in its success: NASA.
The agency, looking to put humans back on the lunar surface before 2030, plans on using a slightly modified version of Starship to lower astronauts down to the surface. After liftoff of a Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule from KSC on a mission known as Artemis III, Orion will dock with a Starship waiting in lunar orbit, then take it down to the surface. It's basically the futuristic version of the lunar lander used during the Apollo program – though factors of magnitude larger and more advanced.
To date, NASA has awarded SpaceX $2.9 billion for the lander program, plus an additional $1.15 billion for follow-on missions and upgrades.
"As part of (the original) contract, SpaceX will also conduct an uncrewed demonstration mission to the moon prior to Artemis III," NASA said late last year when the $1.15 billion second contract was awarded.
A solid timeline for that flight is not yet available but will heavily depend on the success of NASA's Artemis II mission, which is slated to fly before the end of 2024 but could slip into 2025. NASA just named the crew for that mission earlier this month. Those four astronauts won't descend to the surface for that mission, but they will enter lunar orbit and become the first humans to do so since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Impacts on Texas and Florida
In some ways, Starship's first orbital flight is the Brownsville area's Apollo moment.
During a FLORIDA TODAY visit to Starbase in 2021, there was a sense of camaraderie and mission – and casualness – that resembled what life was like on the Space Coast nearly 60 years ago. One prototype test at a time, the seemingly impossible was being made possible, all while the local workforce and population grew.
Brownsville also mirrors the early days of the Space Coast in some ways: low-lying, close to the beach, swaths of undeveloped land. And now, the emergence of a local foothold in the growing space industry.
But Brownsville is far from small. Its population hovers around 185,000 and acts as the seat of Cameron County. What made it attractive to Musk was a confluence of those factors and the fact that, unlike the Cape and KSC, there are no federal fences and military barriers to deal with. The two biggest hurdles are typically environmental reviews and launch licenses obtained from the FAA.
Unlike Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, there is no secure federal perimeter. There are no Space Force guards, no large warning signs, no police patrols. Almost anyone can drive right up to flight-ready hardware and experience the thrill for themselves.
"I truly believe in five, 10, 20 years, they're going to be making documentaries about this just like they make documentaries about Cape Canaveral," said Nic Ansuini, a content creator who moved to Texas in 2021 specifically to document Starship production progress.
And Starship's orbital test flight means business for Florida, too: if all goes well with next week's flight and the program overall, SpaceX plans on launching Starship from KSC's pad 39A in the coming years. Missions with Starlink satellites, science payloads, and flights with crews destined for the moon and Mars are all in the planning phase.
As if tying history and the future together, a massive 450-foot launch tower stands ready to host Starship at pad 39A when it's eventually ready. Just a few hundred feet away, the existing pad 39A tower, which once hosted Apollo and space shuttle missions, continues supporting Falcon 9 missions.
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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: In Texas, SpaceX ready to bet the house on first orbital Starship launch