FAA publishes draft environmental review of SpaceX spacecraft

The proposed environmental review of SpaceX’s spacecraft operations in South Texas by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suggests that the program can likely conduct its first orbital launch, although protecting wildlife and habitat can be a stumbling block – and the approval process is not yet complete.

The FAA released the draft revision for public comment on Friday, September 17, and will take suggestions until October 18. Two virtual public meetings are scheduled for October 6 and 7.

SpaceX cited the environmental review as one of the key steps to take to start Starship’s orbital flights, with CEO and founder Elon Musk saying in August that the company could be ready in a few weeks after the process is complete.

Pictures: SpaceX lifts huge Super Heavy rocket at launch stand

The overall approval process is broader than the newly released assessment, which focuses on the environmental effects of Starship launches and how (if any) they can be addressed, particularly in the environmentally sensitive area surrounding the launch site. near Boca Chica, Texas. Gulf Coast.

While most analyzes of noise, launch debris, road closures and other activities have yielded “no significant impact”, one stumbling block is “biological resources”. habitat designated under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), ”states a summary of the results of the environmental assessment of the Starship launches.

The FAA has submitted a biological assessment for terrestrial species of Boca Chica to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and has requested formal consultation, the agency added, warning it would not conclude the environmental review until the process is complete. . The FAA is also planning a consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service, but noted that it does not expect “negative effects” on marine species or habitat.

The FAA also warned that SpaceX may have to respond to other suggestions, depending on what the public comment process finds; for example, the FAA may end up conducting a more extensive environmental impact study. It also didn’t include a timeline for the work to close, but it can take at least several months as the public has until mid-October to contribute and the environmental work will now include two other federal departments, which have their own processes to follow.

SpaceX originally planned to launch Starship on an unmanned round-the-world test flight in July, but is awaiting FAA approval before proceeding. Musk has expressed frustration with FAA regulations in the past, saying the rules need to be streamlined if humanity ever hopes to launch rockets with sufficient frequency to settle on Mars or achieve other lofty space goals. This time around, Musk said little about the process on Twitter beyond inviting the public to say, “The future of humanity on the moon, Mars and beyond depends on it,” he said friday.

The FAA noted that the EA assumes up to 20 Starship suborbital test flights per year during development, and up to five Starship and Super Heavy orbital launches per year. (Starship’s deep space transportation system consists of two parts: a huge first-stage booster called Super Heavy, and an upper-stage spaceship called Starship.)

Musk plans to fly even more spaceships each year to the Mars colonies. The FAA said in the 150-page draft assessment that a new environmental review would have to be done if SpaceX picks up the pace. That said, “the FAA would analyze the environmental impacts of proposed future activities in part using information developed during the current process,” the agency said in its statement on Friday.

Previous Starship launches, which were all at low altitudes, may have taken place as part of a 2014 EA that SpaceX prepared for a proposed launch of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from Boca Chica.

SpaceX no longer plans to launch these vehicles from Boca Chica, the FAA noted in a launch pad history. (These launches are more from Florida and California.) But the 2014 review looked at vehicles much smaller than the Starship system, which, at about 395 feet (120 meters) in height, is the tallest rocket in the world. world.

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