After months tension, the Federal Aviation Administration has finally weighed in on the environmental effects of the planned expansion of SpaceX’s extensive Starbase launch facility near Boca Chica, Texas. The agency says that if SpaceX takes about 75 actions to limit environmental hazards, the company can continue this expansion and its application for a launch license for its spaceship Starship and Super Heavy rocket booster.
Boca Chica is a critical spot for the company, where engineers have stepped up their testing of Starship and Super Heavy in anticipation of deep space flights. However, local groups, including those focusing on the environment and access to the beach, are concerned about increased pollution, the facility’s potential effects on wildlife and restrictions on access to public beaches. The site is located along the Gulf of Mexico coastline and is close to animal sanctuaries, populated areas, local roads, liquefied natural gas facilities and the Mexican border.
The FAA published its first assessment in September last year, organizing two virtual public hearings through which people in the area, as well as SpaceX fans and critics around the country, could come up with opinions. Now, in a report released todaythe agency decided that the company needs to address a number of issues before obtaining their coveted launch license, including better monitoring of potential effects on vegetation and wildlife and informing surrounding communities about noise and road closures.
Their decision could have far-reaching consequences, as until SpaceX gets the green light from the FAA, it can not continue with its test and launch plans for Starship and Super Heavy. The company definitely has a lot of riding on that rocket. Together with NASA’s Space Launch System, the Super Heavy will be one of the only heavy-lift launch vehicles capable of transporting humans and equipment to the moon and ultimately Mars. NASA has also invested in a lander version of Starship as part of their Artemis program, for when astronauts return to the moon in a few years.
As of press time, the FAA and SpaceX had not responded to WIRED’s interview requests. But when the assessment came out, SpaceX got it tweeted a link that adds: “One step closer to the first orbital flight test of Starship.”
For his part, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk threatened to relocate Starship testing for Florida if the FAA’s process took a long time, or called for an environmental impact statement, or EIS, a more rigorous and time-consuming review, which would then be followed by a mitigating plan to reduce potential ecological damage.
The FAA did not go that route and instead decided more favorably for SpaceX with a finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSI. But the agency nonetheless says the company has more work to do, and that packs a lot into its 174-page report. It says SpaceX should allow biologists to look for effects on wildlife, and should remove all launch waste that falls into sensitive habitats. SpaceX must adjust the lighting at the launch complex to minimize disturbance to wildlife and residents; provide more advanced announcement of launches; Limit how long State Highway 4 is closed and avoid closing it on weekends and holidays. This environmental review is also not the only review: Before SpaceX can continue its Starship launch license application, the Department of Transportation will also assess its potential effects on public safety and national security.