SpaceX faces more Starship delays as NASA seeks launch safety assurances

If the spacecraft explodes on the pad again, it could impact critical ISS infrastructure.

Gene Blevins / reuters

The explosive demise on SN-10 last year broke more than SpaceX's Starship prototype. It's also spurred NASA to put a pin in plans for the vessel to use Cape Canaveral as a backup launchpad, at least until the company can provide evidence that another blow up on the pad won't damage infrastructure critical to resupplying the ISS.

The situation is this: Plans for the primary launchpad SpaceX wants in Boca Chica, Texas for the upcoming Starship rocket is already facing lengthy regulatory delays (though the review phase is expected to wrap up next week). The Army Corps of Engineers in April also denied the company's application to expand Galveston-area launch site after SpaceX failed to provide required documentation.

The company has also been rapidly constructing a secondary launch pad at its Cape Canaveral facility but those plans are now on hold. The problem is that SpaceX's new Starship launch pad sits just a few hundred feet from NASA's launchpad 39A, you know, the only NASA launch pad currently in existence that SpaceX's Dragon Crew is approved to launch from. Should another Starship — which relies on an mix of liquid nitrogen and methane as fuel that is unfamiliar to regulators — go kablooey, the explosive force and ship shrapnel could damage launch complex 39A. And with no 39A, we have no more crewed missions to the ISS until it gets fixed.

"We all recognize that if you had an early failure like we did on one of the early SpaceX flights, it would be pretty devastating to 39A," Kathy Lueders, NASA's space operations chief, told Reuters.

SpaceX, which has already invested heavily in the construction of its now-paused platform, has offered to try to "harden" pad 39A against the forces imparted by both successful and unsuccessful Starship launches as well as build up launch complex 40, located about 5 miles away, with crew launching capabilities. Both of those options would still require agency approval as well as months if not years of construction to get ready.