FAA Gives Qualified Environmental Thumbs Up for Starship Launches

FAA Gives Qualified Environmental Thumbs Up for Starship Launches

The FAA is giving SpaceX a thumbs up for launching the Starship rocket from Boca Chica, TX as far as environmental impacts go, although 75 mitigation actions are required. The environmental review is only one of several factors the agency will consider before deciding whether to grant a launch license, but it is unquestionably good news for Elon Musk’s company and its customers, including NASA.

The FAA issued a Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) last September. Since then it has been collecting information, including through two public hearings, and coordinating with other agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The much-anticipated decision was delayed several times, but at last today was the day.

SpaceX’s Starbase test and launch site at Boca Chica, TX, with a Starship/Super Heavy rocket on a launch pad for tests. The first stage, Super Heavy, is silver. The second stage, Starship, is covered with black thermal insulation tiles. The two-stage combination is also referred to as Starship. Photo credit: SpaceX

Located on the Gulf Coast near Brownsville, TX, launches to orbit from Starbase can remain over water for safety reasons as they do from the other U.S. orbital launch sites in Florida, California, Virginia, and Alaska. But SpaceX’s original permit didn’t include launching rockets as big as Starship to orbit. Today it wants to greatly expand its use of that area.

Its application to conduct orbital launches has been controversial not only with U.S. government agencies, but locals and environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which harshly criticized the FAA’s decision today “despite the ample evidence that SpaceX has already drastically and negatively impacted the Rio Grande Valley.”

The FAA’s decision was a Finding of No Significant Impact or FONSI, but it made clear that is only one factor in deciding whether to issue a launch license.

“The environmental review must be completed along with public safety, national security, and other analyses before a decision on whether to grant a launch license can be made. The license application is still pending.”

Separately, SpaceX must obtain a Clean Water Act Section (404) permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before starting construction, although an FAA spokesperson told SpacePolicyOnline.com that is not required for launch. In April, the Corps withdrew SpaceX’s application to expand Starbase because it did not provide required information. The Corps did not respond to a request for information on the status of the application by press time.

As part of the review and public comments, SpaceX made several changes to its application. They include discontinuing plans to build a desalination plant to provide deluge water for the launch pad, which means it does not need a natural gas pretreatment system and liquifier or a power plant. It will use truck water instead.

The FAA’s pot pourri of 75 mitigation actions run the gamut from limiting when SpaceX can close the road in Boca Chica that leads to Starbase as well as nearby beaches to preparing a report on the historic events of the Mexican War and the Civil War that took place in that area and funding the development and production of five interpretive signs in English and Spanish describing that history.

SpaceX issued a succint tweet. The company did not respond to a request for additional comment by press time.

Musk has expansive plans for Starship to launch both cargo and people into space — to Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars. He’s his own customer for launching thousands of SpaceX Starlink communications satellites, but he also has deals with American entrepreneur Jared Isaacman for the first Starship human trip to Earth orbit, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for the first human trip around the Moon, and NASA for the first return of NASA astronauts to the lunar surface.

SpaceX photo of the integration of Starship’s first and second stages during the first “fit check” at Starbase, August 2021. People for scale.

Musk hopes for the first Starship orbital flight this year, but he is renowned for his overly-optmistic timelines. Getting an FAA license is one thing, but being technically ready is quite another. Musk tested a prototype Starship second stage five times. He designs his rockets for reusability so they must both launch and land. The first four exploded on landing. He finally achieved success on the fifth in May 2021.

No Starship launches have taken place since, but NASA’s Artemis Mission Manager, Michael Sarafin, told a National Academies meeting last week that Starship “is really moving along and making great progress.”

Artemis is NASA’s effort to return humans to the Moon by 2025.  NASA picked Starship to be the Human Landing System for the first Artemis landing. NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft will deliver astronauts to lunar orbit, but cannot take them down to and back from the surface.  That’s what HLS will do. NASA is procuring HLS services rather than owning the landers itself and wants two providers, SpaceX plus another still to be selected.

In a statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com, NASA said it looks forward to SpaceX’s continued progress on HLS.

“NASA is aware that the FAA has issued a Mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact related to SpaceX’s Starship launch operations at its facility in Boca Chica. We look forward to SpaceX’s continued progress towards delivering a human landing system for our Artemis III mission.”

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