October 16, 2021

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has released a draft environmental study on SpaceX’s orbital launches

2 min read

According to a draft environmental assessment issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, SpaceX will be able to launch orbital Starships from Texas, but with several mitigations. The FAA’s issuance of Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) on September 17 kicks off a public comment session that will go until October 18, with two virtual public hearings on October 6 and 7.

The FAA requested the review before deciding whether to award SpaceX a launch license or an experimental permit for orbital deployments of their Starship/Super Heavy rocket. Starship’s previous low-altitude suborbital flight tests relied on a prior environmental assessment completed when SpaceX intended to deploy Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 rockets from the Boca Chica, Texas, facility. The preceding analysis is insufficient to account for the significantly larger Starship/Super Heavy configuration’s environmental consequences.

The analysis does not decide whether the FAA should issue a license for Starship orbital launches; rather, it examines the environmental impacts of launch activities and if and how they may be minimized. The FAA may request a “more intensive” environmental impact statement as a result of the report.

However, the report’s draft version finds only a few severe flaws. Many of the problems examined in the research, ranging from water and air quality to noise and visual impacts, can be minimized by following the recommendations in the project report. SpaceX, for example, would be expected to take precautions to prevent the release of dangerous materials and waste, as well as to mop up any spills.

Potential effects on endangered animals in the Boca Chica area could be a stumbling point. The assessment stated that orbital deployments from Boca Chica would “impact species listed under federal Endangered Species Act” as well as critical habitat. The FAA said it’s working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to figure out those effects. The environmental assessment process won’t be finished until that agency issues a formal conclusion.

However, it’s possible that this environmental assessment only applies to the first Starship deployments from Boca Chica. During its development stage, the evaluation expects approximately 20 Starship suborbital flight tests and up to 5 Starship/Super Heavy orbital deployments each year. SpaceX’s predicted interest for Starship is expected to considerably outstrip that flight rate, necessitating a reevaluation of the project’s environmental consequences.

“If the Draft PEA is completed, and SpaceX continues to develop the program,” the FAA said in a statement on September 17. “The FAA would examine the environmental implications of planned future actions in part utilizing information collected during the present process,” the FAA said. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, asked the public to show support for his company’s Boca Chica plans in a tweet on September 17th. “Please add your thoughts to the public discussion. He expressed his gratitude by saying, “Your support is highly appreciated!” “It will determine humanity’s destiny on the moon, Mars, and beyond.”

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