SpaceX’s plans to launch a giant new rocket into orbit from south Texas do not include ecological showstoppers, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday.
An environmental review by the agency concluded that SpaceX’s plans for orbital launches will have “no significant impact” on the region along the Gulf Coast near Brownsville, Texas. However, the FAA is also asking the company to take more than 75 steps to minimize the impact on surrounding areas when it begins flights in Starship, a vehicle used in NASA’s return-to-the-moon plans as well as the Vision of Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, is central to colonizing Mars.
Actions Mr Musk’s company must take include earlier announcement of launches, having a biologist monitor vegetation and wildlife, coordinating with state and federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats, and adjusting the Lighting to reduce impact on wildlife and a nearby beach.
The mitigation measures required by the FAA also limit the closure of a highway that will pass the SpaceX site during launch to allow people to visit the nearby beach, park and nature preserve. The authority said the highway could not be closed on 18 public holidays and not on more than five weekends a year.
The decision means a more comprehensive environmental impact statement, which would likely have lengthened the project by years, is not required. This decision frustrated some members of the community.
“They say there is no significant impact is ridiculous,” said Jim Chapman, a board member of Save RGV, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group dedicated to protecting the Rio Grande Valley. “The impact is just too great. We still feel that way. The FAA should have recognized that.”
Mr Chapman said he hoped his group would be able to file a lawsuit to force the broader environmental assessment. And SpaceX has yet to obtain a license from the FAA for launches.
SpaceX’s location is in a tiny village called Boca Chica, which the company calls a starbase.
SpaceX has been working there for several years on Starship, a stainless steel monster that is supposed to be the most powerful rocket of all time. Along with a booster stage, it will be nearly 400 feet tall, taller than the Statue of Liberty and its pedestal.
Also, unlike previous orbital rockets, it will be fully reusable. That has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of sending payloads into orbit — less than $10 million to get 100 tons into space, Musk said.
The Boca Chica location offers several factors that make it a favorable place to launch rockets into orbit. With the exception of the lower part of the Florida Peninsula, it’s as far south as you can get in the continental United States. For many missions, a launch pad closer to the equator aids the journey into orbit by adding the speed of the Earth’s rotation to the speed of the rocket.
The launch path is over water, away from populated areas, minimizing risk to people on the ground.
But other creatures also inhabit the surrounding wetlands, including ocelots and Kemp’s ridley turtles, both of which are endangered. State Highway 4, which runs adjacent to the SpaceX campus, also passes through Boca Chica Beach, Texas State Parks and the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge. Environmentalists fear a steady cadence of Starship launches with thunder and rocket fumes and potential explosive mishaps will disrupt the ecosystem.
SpaceX’s plans for Boca Chica that will impact the environment include: installing a solar power plant; construction of parking lots; Construction of processing plants that will carry the cargo ship; and conducting more test flights, increasing the likelihood of additional test explosions that can send debris and violent shockwaves for miles.
The site has also sparked economic debate. Many officials and residents are welcoming the influx of money and prestige SpaceX is bringing to the Brownsville area, where about a third of the people live below the poverty line. But others fear gentrification will crowd out long-established residents.
In 2014, the FAA gave SpaceX environmental clearance to conduct tests and launch its smaller Falcon 9. In recent years, the Falcon 9 has become the most-launched rocket in the world. But SpaceX never launched any from Boca Chica, instead using its other locations in California and Florida.
And Starship is much larger than the Falcon 9 – a spaceship stacked on top of a giant booster called the Super Heavy – with greater environmental impact.
As a result, the FAA required a new environmental assessment before SpaceX could attempt to launch Starship into orbit. During the first orbital test flight, the Super Heavy Booster attempted a controlled landing in the Gulf of Mexico while the Starship stage attempted to land in the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii after entering orbit.
The agency released a draft of the document in September, which suggested no major hurdles that would force SpaceX to create a comprehensive environmental impact statement. It had planned to issue a final version at the end of December, but pushed back the date several times on the grounds that 18,000 comments on the preliminary document needed to be taken into account.
In an update on the Starship program in February, Mr Musk said he was confident the FAA would soon give SpaceX the green light to proceed. “We’ve had kind of a rough indication that there could be approval in March,” Mr Musk said.
That didn’t happen, but Mr Musk said at the time that an orbital launch attempt could happen “a few months” after approval. The company has yet to announce an updated launch schedule based on Monday’s decision.
SpaceX also intends to launch spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
In addition to potential trips to Mars, Starship is intended to be used by NASA to ferry astronauts from orbit around the moon to its surface. The company won a $2.9 billion contract for the mission, beating out two other bidders: Blue Origin, the missile company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and defense contractor Dynetics. The moon landing is on paper scheduled for 2025 but is likely to be delayed. In addition to working on Starship, returning astronauts to the moon will require the Space Launch System, another large rocket being developed by NASA that is also behind schedule.