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WASHINGTON — SpaceX will have spent $5 billion or more on its Starship vehicle and launch infrastructure by the end of this year, according to court filings and comments by the company’s chief executive.
SpaceX filed a motion with federal district court in the District of Columbia May 19, asking to be added as a defendant in the lawsuit filed by several environmental and Native American groups against the Federal Aviation Administration May 1. That suit alleges the FAA improperly carried out an environmental review of SpaceX Starship launches from Boca Chica, Texas.
In the company’s filing, known as a motion to intervene, SpaceX argued that it was affected by the suit, which seeks to revoke the existing launch license the FAA issued for Starship/Super Heavy orbital launches from Boca Chica by claiming the FAA violated environmental law and regulations in the licensing process.
If the plaintiffs win the case, SpaceX stated, “the FAA’s decision could be set aside, and further licensing of the Starship/Super Heavy Program could be significantly delayed, causing severe injury to SpaceX’s business.”
To make that argument, the company included a statement from Bret Johnsen, chief financial officer at SpaceX. He said that, if the plaintiffs win, the company’s ability to generate revenue from Starship launches for both NASA and commercial customers “would be substantially delayed and jeopardized.”
He specifically noted that since a 2014 “record of decision” by the FAA, allowing SpaceX to develop launch facilities at Boca Chica (originally for the Falcon family of launch vehicles), “SpaceX has invested more than $3 billion into developing the Boca Chica launch facility and Starship/Super Heavy launch system.”
The statement did not break out the investment between the launch vehicle itself and infrastructure. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, in an April 29 online discussion on Twitter, the social media network he also owns, estimated that the company would spend about $2 billion on Starship this year.
“It’ll probably be a couple billion dollars this year, two billion dollars-ish, all in on Starship,” he said, adding that he did not expect to have to raise funding to finance that work. He also said in that conversation that he expected Starship to launch four to five more times this year and “would be surprised” if the company didn’t achieve orbit by the end of the year.
That schedule, though, depends on both the technical progress SpaceX makes in repairing the damaged launch pad and getting the next vehicle ready for flight — Musk is known for making aspirational schedules — as well as the outcome of the suit.
Johnsen, in his statement, outlined details of the consequences of any delay in launches caused by the suit. That includes nearly $1 billion in milestone payments on its NASA Human Landing System award linked to the first orbital launch and subsequent steps, which include demonstration of in-space propellant transfer, an uncrewed lunar landing and crewed landing. Neither the agency nor SpaceX have previously outlined the schedule of milestone payments on its $2.9 billion award for Starship lander development for the Artemis 3 mission.
He also stated that SpaceX has invested billions into its Starlink satellite broadband constellation, and would be harmed if it cannot launch its larger “V2” satellites that require Starship. He said “hundreds of thousands of people” have placed deposits for service but are waiting until those larger satellites can be launched to have sufficient capacity to serve them.
On a smaller scale, he said that SpaceX offered Starship/Super Heavy to NASA’s Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) contract for smallsat launches. The company estimated VADR to generate at least $10 million in annual revenue for the company, a small fraction of a single commercial Falcon 9 launch.
The SpaceX motion to intervene is one of the few updates since the suit was filed. The court set a July 1 deadline for a “responsive pleading” from the FAA.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science…
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