SpaceX’s subsequent upgrades to the rocket included “a hot-stage separation system and an electronic thrust vector control system for the Super Heavy’s engines,” and their improvements to the launch infrastructure included “reinforcements to the pad foundation and a water-cooled steel flame deflector,” according to the November 10 statement.
Meanwhile, as part of the process, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was required to look into the local environmental effects of the upgraded Boca Chica launch site, which sits next to a wildlife refuge and a public beach. The agency began that review in October. Several threatened and endangered species live in the area, including the Gulf Coast jaguarundi, ocelot, five species of sea turtles, and birds like the piping plover, red knot, and Northern aplomado falcon.
Also in October, apparently frustrated by the long regulatory process, senior SpaceX officials, including William Gerstenmaier, the company’s vice president for build and flight reliability, conducted rare media interviews arguing that regulators aren’t keeping up with the pace of industry. Gerstenmaier and other space industry executives also participated in a US Senate hearing, which did not include FAA officials, calling for streamlined regulations and more FAA resources for issuing launch licenses. Meanwhile, Musk complained on X about all the rules and regulations. “Each passing year, we tie ourselves down with more and more strings, until, like Gulliver, we can no longer move,” he wrote.
The FAA did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment about the time needed for the mishap investigation and review prior to the new launch license.
The FAA finished the safety portion of its review on October 31, and the Fish and Wildlife Service finished its environmental assessment on November 15. The agency concluded that the upgraded launch site and rocket do not introduce new environmental risks. The FAA’s launch authorization for today’s Starship flight came immediately afterward—only two days before November 17, when a potential government shutdown could have closed both agencies and delayed the launch authorization. “The FAA determined SpaceX met all safety, environmental, policy and financial responsibility requirements,” the agency wrote in a statement.
The most important upgrade, which the Fish and Wildlife officials focused their attention on, was SpaceX’s new water deluge system. After the first launch, the agency’s biologists were reportedly in disbelief that SpaceX, at the time, lacked flame suppression technology like this for Starship—an industry and space agency standard. Such systems are designed to dissipate some of the heat and noise generated by a rocket. SpaceX’s new system involves flooding 358,000 gallons of water from ground tanks into steel plates and releasing them through holes in the plating, as the Fish and Wildlife assessment describes it. In April, Musk characterized it as a “massive super strong steel shower head pointing up.”