KIHEI, Hawaii – An EA draft released by the Federal Aviation Administration suggests that SpaceX will be able to perform the Starship orbital launches from Texas, but with a number of required mitigations.
The FAA’s publication of the proposed Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) on September 17 kicks off a public comment period that will run until October 18, with two virtual public meetings scheduled for October 6 and 7.
The FAA required evaluation before deciding whether to issue a launch license or an experimental permit to SpaceX for orbital launches of its Starship / Super Heavy vehicle. Starship’s previous low-altitude suborbital test flights used an earlier EA originally prepared when SpaceX planned to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from its Boca Chica, Texas site. This prior review is not sufficient to account for the environmental impacts of the much larger Starship / Super Heavy configuration.
The report itself does not determine whether the FAA should authorize Starship’s orbital launches, but rather assesses the environmental effects of the launch activities and if and how they can be mitigated. The report could lead the FAA to seek what it calls a “more intensive” environmental impact statement.
However, the draft report identifies a few issues that it considers important. Many of the factors included in the assessment, from air and water quality to noise and visual effects, can be mitigated through the measures described in the report. For example, SpaceX would be required to take steps to minimize any release of hazardous materials and wastes and clean up any spills.
A potential stumbling block is the potential effects on endangered species around Boca Chica. The report concluded that orbital launches from Boca Chica “would harm listed species and critical habitat designated under federal Endangered Species Act.” The FAA said it was working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to determine these effects and that the environmental review process would not be complete until that agency gave its formal notice.
This EA, however, can only apply to initial Starship launches from Boca Chica. The evaluation assumes up to 20 Starship suborbital test flights per year during its development phase, and up to five Starship / Super Heavy orbital launches per year. SpaceX’s forecasted demand for Starship will likely far exceed this flight rate, which may require a reassessment of its environmental impacts.
“If the PEA project is finalized and SpaceX develops the program further, the FAA would analyze the environmental impacts of proposed future activities in part using the information developed during the current process,” the FAA said in a Sept. 17 statement. .
In a tweet from September 17, SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk called on the public to express support for his company’s plans in Boca Chica. “Please add your voice to public comments. Support is greatly appreciated! he said. “The future of humanity on the moon, on Mars and beyond depends on it. “
Once the public comment period is over, the FAA will incorporate this comments and other work into a final version of the environmental assessment. The FAA will then prepare a “decision record” as to whether the proposal would have significant environmental impacts. Only when this is done will it complete the licensing process for Starship / Super Heavy orbital launches.