The FAA requires SpaceX to make changes to the Texas launch site ahead of future launches

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has determined that SpaceX’s plans for the company’s massive starbase launch site in South Texas will have some environmental impact on the surrounding land and territory — but not enough to require a full Environmental Impact Statement. Now SpaceX must make more than 75 changes to its proposal for the starbase facility if the company is to avoid an additional review and eventually get a license from the FAA to launch its new Starship rocket into orbit from the site.

SpaceX’s starbase facility is located in a small town called Boca Chica, Texas, just off the southern tip of Texas along the Rio Grande River and the US-Mexico border. In recent years, SpaceX has used the site to build scale prototypes of Starship, the company’s next-generation monster rocket designed to take people and cargo to space destinations like the Moon and Mars. SpaceX has already conducted various high-altitude test flights using Starbase’s Starship prototypes, but now the company hopes to actually launch Starship into space and send the vehicle into orbit for the first time.

To launch Starship from the starbase to orbit, SpaceX first needs a launch license from the FAA. And the fate of SpaceX’s starbase facility in Boca Chica has been at stake for the past year and a half as the FAA conducted an environmental review of how the company’s launch operations would impact the surrounding area. Now that a decision has been made, SpaceX must address the more than 75 actions the FAA has listed so the company can reduce its environmental impact on the area. If SpaceX makes these changes, it should pave the way for the company to get a launch license for Starship, although it’s not yet guaranteed.

SpaceX said on Twitter that it sees the decision as good news to move forward with its launch plans.

SpaceX had not originally planned to launch its future moon and Mars rocket from Texas. SpaceX bought its first piece of land in Boca Chica in 2012 with the intention of creating a purely commercial launch site where the company could launch its much smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Ultimately, SpaceX planned to launch up to 12 times a year from the area, away from the hustle and bustle of its much busier Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch pad. With that goal in mind, the FAA conducted a full environmental review of SpaceX’s plans, and in 2014 the agency released an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) detailing how these smaller launches would affect the area. An EIS can take many months and often years to complete, as it requires interviewing experts, scientists, business people and local residents, and conducting rigorous analysis and research into how a proposed action will affect the nearby human environment.

However, SpaceX’s plans have changed significantly since the release of the first EIS. As of 2018, the company has greatly expanded manufacturing activities in Boca Chica after deciding to dedicate the South Texas plant solely to the production of Starship prototypes. The more modest commercial launch facility that SpaceX once envisioned has morphed into a thriving facility filled with massive warehouses and tents and dominated by around-the-clock construction performed by thousands of employees.

As SpaceX’s presence in the region grew, the company also began conducting high-altitude tests with its Starship prototypes – taking the vehicles airborne to altitudes of around 30,000 to 40,000 feet before attempting to land them again to land earth. Most of these tests ended in fiery explosions, only one of which successfully survived its landing. A prototype blew apart just before its scheduled landing in March 2021, scattering metal debris across the nearby nature reserve.

The test flights, combined with ongoing construction and ground testing, have led to growing tensions with the nearby community. Starbase is located next to a small neighborhood of a few dozen houses called Boca Chica Village, which is only accessible via a lone state road that connects to Starbase. This road is frequently closed during tests and other demonstrations, limiting access to the village and the nearby beach. Residents also complained that their daily lives were being disrupted, as they were often asked to leave their homes during major testing. Many in the village of Boca Chica have sold their properties to SpaceX, although some residents have kept their homes.

Finally, in late 2020, the FAA announced that it plans to conduct an environmental review of SpaceX’s plans to launch Starship into orbit from the starbase. In September 2021, the FAA released a draft programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) outlining SpaceX’s updated plans for the area. The document revealed that during Starship’s ongoing development, SpaceX plans to conduct up to 20 Starship suborbital launches per year and send the craft to high altitudes or space alone — but not into orbit — before attempting it to land back on earth. The company also plans to conduct up to five orbital and/or suborbital launches annually with Starship, in addition to the Super Heavy Booster, a massive rocket that SpaceX is also developing to give Starship the extra boost it needs to propel it into orbit reach. During these launches, the Super Heavy would also attempt to land back on Earth, either on a landing pad or platform in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

Ultimately, SpaceX estimated that it would have to close access to the state highway for a total of 500 hours per year for normal operations and an additional 300 hours per year for anomalies. And things would certainly change as SpaceX progressed in its development. SpaceX anticipated that over time the number of orbital launches would increase and suborbital flights would decrease. Aside from the hiatus, SpaceX also outlined other major additions to its plans, including creating a natural gas pre-treatment system to purify methane to be used on the Starship rocket. And there was speculation that SpaceX would have to build a pipeline to transport gas to the facility.

SpaceX has since scrapped its plans for a natural gas pretreatment system, power plant and desalination plant, according to the FAA’s decision released today. The company has also modified the capabilities of its Raptor engine, which will be used to power Starship. Because of these changes, SpaceX does not require as many engines for its vehicles as previously anticipated, but the FAA concluded that doing so would not noticeably change the environmental impact.

As part of its environmental review, the FAA held a comment period on SpaceX’s proposed plans, which drew strong public criticism as well as support. Many critics have called for the FAA to conduct a new EIS as the one conducted in 2014 is no longer appropriate due to SpaceX’s new plans. The FAA said it received more than 18,000 comments during that period, which helped lengthen the decision-making process as SpaceX had to compose responses to each of the comments. The FAA also had to consult with various government agencies to make its decision, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Park Service, which raised some questions about SpaceX’s potential impact on the area. In a biological survey submitted to the FAA, the FWS found that the population of the plover, an endangered bird that nests in Boca Chica, has declined, which correlates with the increase in SpaceX activity in the area, CNBC reported .

A tweet from Elon Musk accelerated the transformation of a region in Texas

Part of the SpaceX starbase in Boca Chica.
Image: Getty

As part of this decision, the FAA will not conduct another EIS, which may save SpaceX some time as it moves forward with its first orbital launch. But the company still has work to do. The more than 75 actions the FAA has listed include things SpaceX can do to address its impact on air quality, noise levels and access to the nearby beach. On the one hand, the company must inform the local authorities and the general public about its market launches at an earlier stage. SpaceX also cannot conduct road closures on more than a dozen identified holidays, and it can only close the road up to five weekends a year. The FAA also wants SpaceX to continue to monitor for changes in local wildlife populations, such as: B. the sea turtles that nest in the area. Among other things, it is asking the company to make donations to local wildlife groups and to monitor and adjust lighting at the launch site to avoid disorienting hatchling turtles. The full list of mitigation measures can be found here.

Before the FAA decision, SpaceX also received a possible hit against its plans at Boca Chica from the Army Corps of Engineers. In March, the Corps told SpaceX that it was withdrawing the company’s permit application for starbase expansion plans due to a lack of information requested by the company. SpaceX may reactivate the permitting process by providing the information requested by the Corps, although it’s unclear if and when SpaceX will comply.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has been working on a possible Plan B for Starship. In December, the company began construction of a Starship launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, an area that has hosted orbital launches for half a century. SpaceX already operates two off-area launch pads for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. However, SpaceX plans to build its Starship launch site very close to the launch pad it uses to send people to the International Space Station, and NASA wants the company to come up with a plan to ensure Starship explosions have this operational launch pad don’t hit in danger Reuters reported.

Although today’s news may sound like a victory for SpaceX’s plans in Texas, the company has yet to receive a license from the FAA to launch its first Starship vehicle into orbit from the region. The FAA emphasized that this decision does not mean that SpaceX will necessarily receive this license, as the company has yet to meet all the safety requirements needed to be approved for launch. Still, there is an incentive to move things forward. SpaceX is contracted by NASA to develop Starship as a lunar module that can ferry people to and from the lunar surface for the agency’s Artemis program. NASA hopes to make the first landing as early as 2025, and if SpaceX is to get anywhere near that date, it needs to show that Starship can make it into space relatively soon.

Leave a Comment