KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The sights, sounds and aftermath of SpaceX’s test launch of its massive Starship rocket is still very much on the minds of many around the world.

That includes those in Florida, like Space Florida president and CEO Frank DiBello, who are watching the progress of SpaceX working towards bringing Starship launch capability to the Sunshine State.

What You Need To Know

  • SpaceX is working with the Kennedy Space Center’s Environmental Management Branch to get approval for a 100-acre expansion

  • If approved, the expansion would allow SpaceX to consolidate its Brevard County assets

  • A final environmental assessment report regarding the expansion is expected in the next couple of months for public review

“It was exciting, clearly, and in many ways it was a successful test launch, which is what it was intended to be,” said DiBello in an interview with Spectrum News. “They achieved flight in a way that they learned a lot from the things that might not have gone wrong.”

DiBello has been at the helm of Space Florida, an organization designed to help foster investment in Florida’s aerospace economy and expand industry growth, for the past 15 years.

He said seeing the automated flight termination system trigger and destroy Starship was not surprising, given the anomaly detected during its first test flight. DiBello believes SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency that oversees both launch licenses and commercial spaceflight mishaps, learned a lot from the flight and will make improvements for the future.

“The company learned a lot in this display, both about the rocket itself as well as the launch system and the impact on the ground,” he said. “That’s a big rocket. So, I suspect it will cause a lot of learning to be infused back into the design of the improvements that we’re making to the pad here. And clearly, you want to be able to build it so that it can be used multiple times, which is their plan.”

“I see no reason why they can’t do with Starship what they’ve been doing with the Falcon 9,” he added.

Starships were meant to fly (in Florida)

SpaceX received a final Environmental Assessment from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 2019 to begin construction of a Starship launch tower at the Launch Complex 39A pad. Eagle-eyed launch watchers could see much of the vertical work happening over the course of 2022 in the background of dozens of Falcon 9 launches and one Falcon Heavy launch. 

SpaceX's Starship launch tower at Launch Complex 39A, right, is seen during the NASA-SpaceX Crew-5 launch in October 2022. (Spectrum News file photo/Anthony Leone)

SpaceX is also making other moves to accommodate its powerful, new Super Heavy rocket. In coordination with NASA, the company is in the midst of building a second crew access tower at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to mirror its capabilities at Launch Complex 39A.

The redundancy would give NASA a second, Florida-based pad to send crew and cargo to the International Space Station. Currently, crew only launch from Launch Complex 39A, and cargo missions, formally Commercial Resupply Services missions, are launched by SpaceX in Florida and Northrop Grumman from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

In tandem with the launch capability expansion, SpaceX is also working with NASA on approval for expanding its footprint at KSC.

Don Dankert, an environmental scientist within Kennedy’s Environmental Management Branch, said they are working to develop an environmental assessment for that proposed 100-acre expansion along Roberts Road at KSC.

It would extend the SpaceX facilities, known as HangarX, in order to consolidate all of the company’s operations across Brevard County. Dankert said that assessment should be available for public review “probably within the next couple of months.” It follows a period of public scoping that involved getting feedback from the public on the initial proposal.

“They’ll see a full and detailed analysis of the proposal, which is to expand the Roberts Road campus," Dankert said. "There’s a proposed 100-acre parcel, an evaluation of the various alternatives we looked at and a detailed analysis of all the potential environmental effects of moving forward with that proposal.” 

Even if SpaceX were to get the seal of approval to move forward with its expansion proposal, officials say that doesn’t mean the company could start a Florida launch campaign right away. Dankert said now that Starship has flown for the first time, experts will take a close look at the impacts of that launch and subsequent others and compare them to their first environmental assessment.

“We want to understand what we evaluated in 2019 in the (environmental assessment), if the concept of operations, or as SpaceX continues to learn more about that program and the vehicle and we do as well, if there’s a (change) there, if there’s something that we would need to go back and look at from an environmental perspective to ensure that we’re not going to have any unforeseen impacts,” Dankert said.

He said the team at KSC is interested in getting a detailed report of impacts on structures and natural resources surrounding the launch site near Boca Chica, Texas.

Return to flight

Of course, officials say SpaceX will also need to receive a launch license to launch Starship from Florida as well. The FAA is currently going through a mishap investigation alongside SpaceX to fully evaluate the test flight from Texas.

“A return to flight of the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle is based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety. This is standard practice for all mishap investigations,” the agency said in a statement.

Videos showing debris falling after the Starship explosion got a lot of people talking about the wider impacts of the test flight.

The FAA released the following statement Wednesday to discuss the potential environmental impacts of the mission:

“The Anomaly Response Plan referenced in the 2022 Programmatic Environmental Assessment has been activated. In addition, other environmental mitigations require that SpaceX must have ongoing monitoring of vegetation and wildlife by a qualified biologist. This includes conducting a pre- and post-launch survey and submitting a report to the FAA and to the other involved state or federal agencies. There are also required mitigations specific to SpaceX coordinating with state or federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats. The FAA will ensure SpaceX complies with all required mitigations. Furthermore, the FAA made compliance with the environmental mitigations a condition of the license.”

The agency went on to state that SpaceX must coordinate with state and federal agencies “to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats.”

In a Twitter response to Ars Technica’s Senior Space Editor Eric Berger, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said based on early assessments, the team needs to make some notable upgrades before attempting to launch again.

DiBello said SpaceX is taking the right steps to get closer to launching Starship with regularity, like its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

“I think they’re doing the right thing to build it, test it, learn from any failures that are there and then build it and test again,” DiBello said. “And the more that they can do that, the more they’re going to drive down the concern areas over how large a rocket is or what its reliability may be. That’s what it takes to get a new rocket system going.”