After a few months In suspense, the FAA has finally weighed the environmental impact of a planned expansion of SpaceX’s sprawling Starbase launch facility near Boca Chica, Texas. The agency said that if SpaceX takes about 75 actions to limit environmental hazards, the company can continue to expand and apply for launch licenses for its Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket boosters.
Boca Chica is a key location for the company, and engineers have been ramping up testing of Starship and Super Heavy for deep-space flight. But local groups, including those focused on the environment and beach access, are concerned about increased pollution, the facility’s potential impact on wildlife and restrictions on access to public beaches. The site is located along the Gulf Coast, close to wildlife reserves, populated areas, local roads, LNG facilities and the Mexican border.
The FAA released its initial assessment last September and organized two virtual public hearings through which people in the region, as well as SpaceX fans and critics across the country, can have their say.Now, in a report released todaythe agency decided the company needed to address a few issues to get their coveted launch license, including better monitoring of potential impacts on vegetation and wildlife, and notifying surrounding communities of noise and road closures.
Their decision could have far-reaching ramifications, as SpaceX cannot proceed with its plans to test and launch Starship and Super Heavy until it receives approval from the FAA. The company definitely has a lot going for this rocket. Along with NASA’s Space Launch System, the Super Heavy will be one of the only heavy-lift rockets capable of carrying humans and equipment to the Moon and eventually to Mars. As part of its Artemis program, NASA has also invested in a lander version of Starship for use when astronauts return to the moon in a few years.
As of press time, the FAA and SpaceX have not responded to WIRED’s request for an interview. But when the assessment came out, SpaceX tweet A link, adding: “One step closer to first orbital flight test of Starship.”
For his part, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has threatened to move If the FAA process takes a long time or requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a more rigorous and time-consuming review, Starship will travel to Florida for testing and then develop mitigation plans to reduce potential ecological hazards.
The FAA didn’t go that route, preferring SpaceX as “no significant impact” or “FONSI.” But the agency still said the company had more work to do, and it included a lot in its 174-page report. It said SpaceX needs to get biologists to observe the impact on wildlife and must remove any launch debris that falls into sensitive habitats. SpaceX needs to adjust the lighting at the launch site to minimize disruption to wildlife and residents; provide more advance notice of the launch; limit the closure of State Highway 4 and avoid closings on weekends and holidays. The environmental review isn’t the only one, either: Before SpaceX moves forward with its Starship launch permit application, the Department of Transportation will also assess its potential impact on public safety and national security.