What’s Standing in Elon Musk’s Way?

The SpaceX CEO is pushing to speed his Starship off the Earth, but encountering some friction.

A picture of SpaceX's Starship prototype during a launch test, with the sun peeking out from behind it
SpaceX

The thought of a three-letter government agency preventing Elon Musk, currently the richest person in the world, from doing anything he wants might seem like a bureaucrat’s fantasy. This is the guy who got approval to launch a Tesla into space, who got a street renamed Rocket Road, who disregarded coronavirus restrictions when he felt they got in the way of business. But Musk’s ambitious timeline for launching Starship, his dream rocket, out of a remote part of Texas depends right now on a pending decision from the Federal Aviation Administration that could add months or even years of delay.

Musk can’t bulldoze past regulations of this particular nature. He does have one power that many executives do not: Whenever he talks, people pay attention. Last night, the CEO of SpaceX spoke at the company’s launch site in South Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border. “Civilization is feeling a little fragile these days,” he said, following up the comment with a deep sigh. Then he described, as he always does, his proposed fix: building a city on Mars “as soon as possible.” Behind him stood a behemoth structure, a charcoal-black spaceship on a giant steel rocket, glowing in the floodlights—a prototype for Starship, the reusable rocket system that Musk wants to use to someday transport passengers from continent to continent, to the moon, and, of course, to Mars.

Musk now finds himself at a bit of an inflection point. This could be the year that he smooths out yet another piece of friction in his deep-space enterprise, or it could be the year that momentum stalls. Last night’s presentation seemed like a not-so-subtle attempt to show that the success of Starship hinges on what the FAA decides—a heavy message disguised as a fanciful TED Talk.

The Starship prototype at the center of the show is not the first one SpaceX has built, and it certainly won’t be the last. SpaceX will blow up these prototypes until one stays intact, until the company can confidently hurl a spaceship into orbit, loop it around Earth, and bring it back home. Then SpaceX will start letting people on board.

The way Musk talks, a future filled with Starships seems imminent. But SpaceX faces some significant obstacles, not all technical. Before the company attempts to send Starship into orbit for the first time, the FAA must give SpaceX a launch license. The federal agency is currently evaluating the potential environmental impacts of SpaceX’s Starship ambitions in South Texas, and is expected to decide later this month whether to approve the effort or request an even more detailed and time-consuming review.

SpaceX has been flying rockets into orbit for more than a decade, but Starship is the company’s most complicated effort yet. In the past few years, Musk and SpaceX have conjured a space town around it on the Gulf of Mexico, buying up land, building new facilities, posting a job listing for a “spaceport mixologist.” Musk has even moved into a nearby village himself, after driving out some of the residents. Today, the village, Boca Chica, is almost unrecognizable compared with its pre-Musk form—a quiet coastal paradise turned into a bustling cosmic shipyard. Last night, when someone in the audience asked Musk what he liked about working in the area, Musk said, “I think Texas has the right amount of regulations.”

A picture of the Starship spacecraft stacked on top of the Super Heavy rocket booster
The Starship spacecraft stacked on top of a rocket booster (Jim Watson / AFP / Getty)

While SpaceX has expanded its Texan Cape Canaveral, the company has cemented its presence on the coast of Florida, where SpaceX leases a launchpad and is currently NASA’s only option for launching astronauts to the International Space Station from inside the United States. SpaceX is also NASA’s best option for putting people on the moon for the first time in 50 years. Last year, NASA gave SpaceX nearly $3 billion to develop a version of Starship that could land American astronauts on the lunar surface. Starship is no longer just a tool of Musk’s own multi-planetary agenda; it’s also a taxpayer-funded project in the American government’s effort to make it to the moon again (preferably before China does). If the FAA decides that SpaceX’s plans in South Texas need more scrutiny, Musk said he would shift the Starship program to Florida, where the company has already started construction on a new launchpad and production facilities. But Musk said that this scenario would add months to his timeline for Starship, and Boca Chica, which he now exclusively refers to as Starbase, is his first choice for operations.

When the time comes, SpaceX’s first attempt to fly Starship into orbit will involve sending the 164-foot-tall spaceship to complete one loop around Earth and then land in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. The 230-foot-tall rocket booster that will propel the spaceship, meanwhile, would splash down in the Gulf of Mexico. Musk said he expects this test to take place sometime this year, but it’s wise to always take Musk’s predictions with a big grain of salt. Musk operates on what some in the space community refer to as Elon standard time; in 2019, for example, he said Starship would reach orbit in less than six months. Plus, a potential pivot from South Texas to Florida would set Starship back as SpaceX rushes to build the necessary infrastructure at Cape Canaveral.

And Musk is not known for his patience. Last year, the day after Thanksgiving, Musk sent a tense company-wide email saying that the company wasn’t moving fast enough on producing the engines that the Starship program needs. “I was going to take this weekend off, as my first weekend off in a long time, but instead, I will be on the Raptor line all night and through the weekend,” Musk wrote. “Unless you have critical family matters or cannot physically return to Hawthorne”—SpaceX’s headquarters in California—“we will need all hands on deck to recover from what is, quite frankly, a disaster.” Engineering Starship’s engines, Musk said last night, has been “mind-bogglingly difficult.”

SpaceX will, as it has done before, eventually figure it out. The company has become one of the world’s most reliable rocket companies. It would have seemed absurd to say this just a decade ago, but NASA needs Elon Musk to reach the moon. That reality kept nagging at me as I watched Moonfall, the latest offering from the disaster-movie director Roland Emmerich. Musk is mentioned a few times—“What would Elon do?” asks the nerdy main character when he discovers that the moon is barreling toward Earth; “God, I love Elon,” the astronaut lead remarks upon realizing that the Earth-saving mission can refuel at space-based gas stations built by “our friends at SpaceX.” (Musk’s Starship vision actually does involve filling spaceships with propellant while they’re in orbit, a plan he said SpaceX would start testing within the next two years—EST, of course.)

Moonfall’s explanation for why the moon nearly destroys us is absolutely bonkers, but still, as the moon rips apart cities and mountaintops, one of the most fantastical aspects about this sci-fi scenario is Musk’s absence. If Earth were facing some cosmic threat, Musk—who once offered to build a submarine to rescue trapped schoolchildren in a Thai cave, and who is currently trying to use SpaceX’s internet satellites to bring Tonga back online after a disastrous volcanic eruption—would be, for better or worse, front and center. Musk and his vision are becoming more embedded in the story of American space exploration, and that includes Starship, whether it launches from Texas or Florida, this year or a few down the line.