FAA asks SpaceX to make changes to 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 surrounding land and areas – but not enough to require a statement. of full environmental impact. Now SpaceX will have to make more than 75 changes to its proposal for the Starbase facility if the company is to avoid further scrutiny and possibly receive an FAA license 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 at the southern tip of Texas along the Rio Grande River and the US-Mexico border. For the past few years, SpaceX has used the site to build full-scale prototypes of Starship, the company’s next-generation monster rocket designed to ferry people and cargo to distant destinations like the Moon and Mars. SpaceX has already conducted various high-altitude test flights with Starship prototypes from Starbase, but now the company hopes to actually launch Starship into space for the first time and send the vehicle into orbit.

In order to launch Starship into orbit from Starbase, SpaceX first needs a launch license from the FAA. And the fate of SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica has been in the balance for a year and a half as the FAA conducts an environmental review of the impact of the company’s launch operations on the surrounding region. Now, with a decision made, SpaceX will need to address the more than 75 actions listed by the FAA in order for the company to reduce its environmental impact on the region. If SpaceX makes these changes, it should help pave the way for the company to receive a launch license for Starship, although that still isn’t guaranteed.

SpaceX tweeted that it views the decision as good news for moving forward with its launch plans.

SpaceX did not initially plan to launch its future Moon and Mars rocket from Texas. SpaceX bought its first 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 envisioned launching up to 12 times a year from the region, away from the hustle and bustle of its much busier launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida. With that goal in mind, the FAA conducted a comprehensive environmental review of SpaceX’s plans, and in 2014 the agency issued an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, detailing how these smaller launches would affect the region. An SIA can take several months and often years, as it requires interviews with experts, scientists, business officials and residents, as well as the performance of rigorous analysis and research into the impact of a proposed action. on the nearby human environment.

However, SpaceX’s plans have changed significantly since that first EIS was released. Beginning in 2018, the company seriously ramped up production activities in Boca Chica after deciding to dedicate the South Texas facility solely to producing Starship prototypes. The smaller commercial launch facility SpaceX once imagined has blossomed into a thriving facility, filled with massive warehouses and tents and dominated by round-the-clock construction carried out by thousands of employees.

As SpaceX’s presence in the region grew, the company also began conducting high-altitude flight tests with its Starship prototypes – launching the vehicles to heights of around 30,000 to 40,000 feet in the air before attempting to land them on Earth. Most of these tests ended in explosions of fire, with only one successfully landing. A prototype exploded just before it was supposed to land in March 2021, spreading metallic debris into the nearby wildlife refuge.

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

Finally, in late 2020, the FAA announced that it planned to conduct an environmental review of SpaceX’s plans to launch Starship into orbit from Starbase. In September 2021, the FAA released a draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment, or PEA, outlining SpaceX’s updated plans for the region. The document revealed that, during ongoing Starship development, SpaceX plans to conduct up to 20 suborbital Starship launches per year, sending the vehicle alone to high altitude or into space – but not into orbit – before to try to land it. back on Earth. The company also plans to perform up to five orbital and/or suborbital launches with Starship per year in addition to the Super Heavy booster, a massive rocket that SpaceX is also developing to give Starship the extra thrust it needs to reach the orbit. During these launches, the Super Heavy would also attempt to land on Earth, either on an airstrip or on a platform in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

Ultimately, SpaceX estimated that it would have to close access to the national highway 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 with its development. SpaceX predicted that the number of orbital launches would increase over time, with suborbital flights decreasing. Beyond the disruption, SpaceX also outlined other major additions to its plans, including creating a natural gas pre-treatment system to purify methane for use in the Starship rocket. And there was speculation that SpaceX would need to build a pipeline to transport the gas to the plant.

SpaceX has since scrapped plans for a natural gas pretreatment system, power plant and desalination plant, according to the FAA’s decision released today. The company has also changed the capabilities of its Raptor engine, which is used to propel Starship. Because of these changes, SpaceX doesn’t need as many engines for its vehicles as it previously anticipated, but the FAA concluded that it wouldn’t materially change the environmental impact.

As part of its environmental review, the FAA held a comment period on SpaceX’s proposed plans, which drew both intense criticism and support from members of the public. Many critics demanded that the FAA perform a new EIS, as the one performed in 2014 was no longer adequate based on SpaceX’s new plans. The FAA said it received more than 18,000 comments during that time, which helped prolong the decision-making process as SpaceX had to draft 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 questions about SpaceX’s potential effects on the region. In a biological advisory given to the FAA, the FWS noted that there had been a decrease in the population of piping plovers, an endangered bird that nests in Boca Chica, correlating with increased activity. of SpaceX in the region, CNBC reported.

Part of SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica.
Image: Getty

As part of the decision, the FAA will not conduct another EIS, which could potentially buy SpaceX time as it moves forward with its first orbital launch. But the company still has work to do. The more than 75 actions listed by the FAA include steps SpaceX can take to address its impact on air quality, sound levels and nearby beach access. In particular, the company will have to inform local authorities and the general public more in advance of its launches. SpaceX also cannot conduct road closures for more than a dozen identified holidays, and it can only close the road for up to five weekends per year. The FAA also wants SpaceX to continue monitoring changes in local wildlife populations, such as sea turtles that nest in the area. Among other things, he asks the company to make donations to local wildlife groups and to monitor and adjust lighting at the launch site to avoid disorienting turtle hatchlings. The full list of mitigation measures is available here.

Prior to the FAA’s decision, SpaceX also received a potential knock on its plans in Boca Chica from the Army Corps of Engineers. In March, the Corps informed SpaceX that it was withdrawing the company’s permit application for Starbase expansion projects, citing a lack of requested information provided by the company. SpaceX may reactivate the permit application process by providing information requested by the Corps, although it is unclear if and when SpaceX will comply.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is working on a potential 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 launch pads out of the area for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. However, SpaceX plans to build its Starship launch site very close to the pad it uses to send humans to the International Space Station, and NASA wants the company to come up with a plan to ensure Starship explosions don’t not put this operational launching pad at risk, Reuters reported.

While today’s news may seem like a win for SpaceX’s plans in Texas, the company has yet to receive an FAA license to launch its first Starship vehicle into orbit from the region. The FAA stressed that this decision does not mean SpaceX will necessarily receive this license, as the company must still comply with all necessary safety requirements to be approved for launch. Yet there is an incentive to get things done. SpaceX is contracted by NASA to develop Starship as a lunar lander capable of carrying people to and from the surface of the Moon for the agency’s Artemis program. NASA hopes to make the first landing as soon as 2025, and if SpaceX is to get any closer to that date, it needs to show that Starship can get to space relatively quickly.

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