The FAA is asking SpaceX to make changes to the launch site in Texas before 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 Earth and the surrounding area, but not enough to require a full environmental impact statement. Now, SpaceX will need to make more than 75 changes to its proposal for the Starbase facility if the company is to avoid additional review and eventually obtain authorization from the FAA to launch the new Starship rocket into orbit from the site.

SpaceX’s Starbase facility is located in a small town called Boca Chica, Texas, on the southern tip of Texas along the Rio Grande River and the US-Mexico border. Over the past few years, SpaceX has used the site to build full-scale prototypes of the spacecraft, the company’s next-generation monster rocket designed to transport people and cargo to deep space destinations like the Moon and Mars. SpaceX has already conducted several high-altitude test flights with Starship prototypes from Starbase, but for now, the company hopes to actually launch the Starship into space for the first time and send the craft into orbit.

In order to launch the Starship into orbit from Starbase, SpaceX first needs a launch license from the FAA. The fate of SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica has hung in the balance for the past year and a half as the Federal Aviation Administration has conducted an environmental review of how the company’s launches will affect the surrounding area. Now, with a decision made, SpaceX will need to address more than 75 measures listed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) so the company can reduce its environmental impact on the region. If SpaceX makes these changes, they should help pave the way for the company to obtain a launch license for the Starship, although that is still not guaranteed.

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

SpaceX did not originally plan to launch a future Moon and Mars rocket from Texas. SpaceX bought its first plot of land in Boca Chica in 2012 with the aim 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 area, far from the bustle of its busiest launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida. With this goal in mind, the FAA conducted a full environmental review of SpaceX’s plans, and in 2014, the agency published an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, detailing how smaller launches would affect the region. An EIS can take several months and years to complete, requiring interviews with experts, scientists, business officials and residents as well as rigorous analysis and research on how the proposed procedure might affect the nearby human environment.

However, SpaceX’s plans have changed dramatically since the first EIS was published. Beginning in 2018, the company has seriously ramped up production activities at Boca Chica after deciding to dedicate a South Texas facility solely to the production of Starship prototypes. The most modest commercial launch facility SpaceX once imagined has been transformed into a thriving facility, filled with warehouses and huge tents and dominated by round-the-clock construction by thousands of employees.

As SpaceX’s presence in the region has grown, the company has also begun conducting high-altitude flight tests with its Starship prototypes – launching the vehicles at altitudes ranging from 30,000 to 40,000 feet in the air before attempting to land them back on Earth. Most of those tests ended in fiery explosions, with only one successful landing. A prototype exploded before landing in March 2021, scattering metallic debris through the nearby wildlife refuge.

Test flights, along with ongoing construction and ground tests, have increased tension with the nearby community. Starbase is adjacent to a small neighborhood with a few dozen homes called Boca Chica Village, which is only accessible via a single highway connected to Starbase. This road is often closed during auditions and other demonstrations, limiting access to both the village and the nearby beach. Residents also complained of disruption to their daily lives as they were often asked to leave their homes during major tests. Many residents of Boca Chica village have sold their properties to SpaceX, although a few residents have kept their homes.

Finally, in late 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it plans to conduct an environmental review of SpaceX’s plans to launch the Starship into orbit from Starbase. In September 2021, the FAA released a draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment, or PEA, that lays out updated SpaceX plans for the region. The document revealed that during the ongoing development of the Starship, SpaceX plans to conduct up to 20 suborbital launches from the Starship annually, sending the craft alone to high altitudes or into space – but not into orbit – before attempting to land it. back on earth. The company also plans to conduct up to five orbital and/or suborbital launches annually with the Starship atop the Super Heavy Booster, a massive rocket that SpaceX is also developing to give the Starship the extra thrust it needs to achieve orbit. During these launches, the Super Heavy will also attempt to land, either in a landing pad or a platform in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

Ultimately, SpaceX estimated that it would have to shut down state highway access a total of 500 hours each year for normal operations and an additional 300 hours each year for anomalies. And things will definitely change as SpaceX advances in its development. SpaceX has predicted that the number of orbital launches will increase over time as suborbital flights decrease. Besides the turbulence, SpaceX has also outlined other major additions to its plans, including creating a natural gas processing system to purify methane for use in the Starship rocket. There has been speculation that SpaceX will need to build a pipeline to carry gas to the plant.

SpaceX has since canceled plans for its natural gas pretreatment system, power plant, and desalination plant, according to an FAA ruling issued today. The company has also modified the capabilities of its Raptor engine, which is used to propel the Starship. Because of these changes, SpaceX does not need as many engines for its vehicles as previously expected, but the FAA concluded that this would not have any “notable changes in environmental impacts.”

As part of its environmental review, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) held a comment period on proposed SpaceX plans, which was met with intense criticism and support from members of the public. Many critics have demanded that the FAA conduct a new EIS, because the one done in 2014 is no longer relevant based on SpaceX’s new plans. The Federal Aviation Administration said it received more than 18,000 comments during that time, prolonging the decision-making process as SpaceX had to craft 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 impacts on the region. In a biologist’s opinion submitted to the FAA, the FWS noted a decrease in the number of pipe porcupines, an endangered bird nesting in Boca Chica, linked to an increase in SpaceX activity in the area, CNBC reported.

As part of this decision, the FAA will not conduct another EIS, which will save SpaceX some time to move forward with its first orbital launch. But the company still has work to do. More than 75 measures listed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) include things SpaceX can do to address their impact on air quality, sound levels, and nearshore access. The company will need to provide more advanced notice of its release to local authorities and the general public. SpaceX also cannot close roads during 18 specified holidays, and can only close the road for up to five weekends per year.

Prior to the FAA’s decision, SpaceX had also received a potential blow to its Boca Chica plans from the Army’s Corps of Engineers. In March, SpaceX reported that it was withdrawing the company’s authorization application for Starbase’s expansion plans, citing a lack of required information provided by the company. SpaceX can reactivate the permit application process by providing the 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 the Starship. In December, the company began construction on the Starship launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, an area that has hosted orbital launches for the past half century. SpaceX already operates two off-area launch bases for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

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