SpaceX could continue to develop and test its giant Starship vehicle in South Texas, provided the company makes efforts to reduce its impact on the environmentally sensitive area, according to a much-anticipated assessment by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). ).
That FAA assessment, called a Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA), had the environmental impacts of spaceship activities at Starbase, SpaceX’s facility near the town of Brownsville.
The PEA was originally expected to be released in late 2021, but the FAA the deadline pushed back several timesciting the need to consult with other agencies and analyze the thousands of public comments submitted in response to a draft published in mid-September.
Photos: SpaceX lifts huge super-heavy rocket onto launch pad
One step closer to Starship’s first orbital flight test https://t.co/MEcQ6gST6Q pic.twitter.com/jxqEsM62gcJune 13, 2022
That work is finally done, the FAA announced today (June 13). And the result is especially good news for SpaceX: The company can continue its Starship work on Starbase, which is currently focused on preparing the massive vehicle for its first orbital test flight, without the need for an environmental impact assessment, a stricter and more time-consuming assessment.
Indeed, SpaceX responded to the PEA release today with: a celebratory tweet (opens in new tab): “One step closer to Starship’s first orbital test flight.”
But the latest PEA doesn’t give SpaceX a free hand to do as it sees fit in and around Starbase, which sits along the Texas Gulf Coast in a biodiversity hotspot. The company must take more than 75 actions to reduce its environmental impact in the area.
“After consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there will be a more sophisticated launch announcement to reduce the duration of State Highway 4’s closure during launch operations. The highway traverses Boca Chica Beach, Texas State Parks and the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge,” FAA officials wrote in an emailed statement today.
“Closings are not allowed on 18 identified holidays, and weekend restrictions are limited to no more than five weekends per year, ensuring robust access to the refuge and park throughout the calendar year,” she added. “The FAA also requires real-time notifications when access restrictions begin, end or are canceled.”
SpaceX must also take other measures, including allowing a biologist to monitor the plant and animal populations in the area; keep the local community informed about activities that may produce loud noises, such as sonic booms; help ensure that launch debris is removed from sensitive habitats; and changing the lighting arrangement to reduce the impact on the adjacent beach and nocturnal animals.
You can read the final PEA, as well as a number of other related documents, at: the FAA’s website (opens in new tab)†
Starship consists of a huge booster of the first stage called Super Heavy and a 50 meter high spacecraft in the upper stage known as Starship. Both elements will be fully and quickly reusable, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said.
SpaceX sees Starship as a potentially revolutionary transport system, one that will make the colonization of Mars and a variety of other exploration feats economically viable. NASA sees promise in the vehicle and chooses it as the first manned lunar lander for its Artemis moon program†
SpaceX has some high altitude test flights from Starbase with Starship prototypes on the top stage, but the upcoming first orbital attempt will be a major leap forward for the program. It’s unclear when exactly it will happen, and not all the regulatory boxes are checked; SpaceX has yet to get a launch license from the FAA.
Mike Wall is the author of “Outside (opens in new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book on the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab)† follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on facebook (opens in new tab)†