This piece was originally published in the National Interest.
We are now over two months past SpaceX’s historic Starship test launch. The massive rocket blasted off from Texas on April 20, but exploded several minutes after liftoff. SpaceX is already preparing for its next mission; CEO Elon Musk initially predicted a next test in 1–2 months, and a Federal Communications Commission application requested a six-month window beginning June 15.
But the launch blasted a hole into the pad and scattered debris across the launch site and nearby towns. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded Starship and opened an investigation. Environmental groups sued the FAA, claiming the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not conducting a thorough enough review of the project.
It is litigation, not engineering or manufacturing, that could be the biggest imminent threat to Starship’s next test. Given that NASA’s impressive but costly Space Launch System lacks viability as a long-term, super heavy-lift option, the lack of a private-sector peer competitor in the near-to-medium-term, and the rapid rise of China as a space power and its in-development Starship equivalent, the United States heavily depends on Starship succeeding to ensure long-term civil and military leadership in space. A major, years-long delay—or license revocation—would be devastating to both SpaceX and the United States.