FAA moves SpaceX a step closer to receiving Starship launch license

FAA moves SpaceX a step closer to receiving Starship launch license

An aerial photo of SpaceX’s Starship launch complex near Boca Chica Beach, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

The FAA is requiring SpaceX take more than 75 actions to reduce the environmental effects of flying its gigantic 40-story-tall Starship rocket from South Texas, but regulators said Monday they found no significant impacts and moved SpaceX a step closer to receiving a launch license.

SpaceX will need to take actions to “mitigate environmental impacts from its proposed plan to launch the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle from Boca Chica, Texas,” the FAA said in a statement.

“One step closer to the first orbital flight test of Starship,” SpaceX tweeted.

The decision means SpaceX still has more work to do to reduce the possible damage to the environment at the Boca Chica site, located near state parks and a wildlife refuge on the South Texas coast east of Brownsville. But it gives SpaceX a roadmap to clear a major regulatory hurdle that stood in the way of commencing full-scale test flights of the nearly 400-foot-tall (120-meter) rocket, the largest launcher in the world.

The FAA’s final Programmatic Environmental Assessment for SpaceX’s Starship launch operations in Texas found the company’s plans would have “no significant impact” on the local environment, pending the more than 75 mitigation measures, some of which are already completed.

The measures the FAA will require of SpaceX include ongoing monitoring of vegetation and wildlife in the area around the Starship facility, which SpaceX calls Starbase. SpaceX will also have to notify surrounding communities of potential engine noise and sonic booms from launches.

SpaceX will also have to provide more advance notice of launches to reduce the time that a public highway passing through the Starbase facility is closed during launch operations. Road closures will not be permitted on 18 identified holidays, and weekend restrictions will only be allowed five weekends per year, ensuring local residents can access the wildlife refuge and beach near the Starbase launch site.

The FAA also requires SpaceX to coordinate with state or federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats, And SpaceX will have to minimize lighting at the launch complex to reduce impacts to wildlife and the nearby beach.

The completion of the FAA’s environmental review is just one milestone on the road to SpaceX’s first Starship orbital test flight. The FAA still has to issue a launch license to SpaceX.

In addition to the environmental impact considerations, the FAA says it considers public safety issues — such as overflight of populated areas and payload contents — national security or foreign policy concerns, and insurance requirements for the launch operator before issuing a permit or license.

The FAA said Monday that SpaceX’s Starship launch license application is still pending.

And SpaceX teams will need to complete technical preparations for the Starship test flight. Over the past year, the company has made significant progress in building and outfitting the Texas launch pad, and has tested numerous upgraded Raptor engines needed to power the rocket in an effort to overcome reliability and performance problems.

SpaceX’s huge privately-funded rocket, made of shiny stainless steel, will be the most powerful to ever fly. The Super Heavy will have 33 methane-fueled Raptor 2 engines producing some 17 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. It’s also designed to be fully reusable, with the Super Heavy booster and Starship — essentially part upper stage and part in-space transporter — capable of returning to Earth with a vertical landing back on its launch pad, and then flying again.

SpaceX’s concept for recovering the Super Heavy booster involves catching it with articulating “chopstick” arms on the launch tower.

The Starship itself will have six Raptor engines initially, but that could grow to nine engines — three designed for landing propulsion on Earth, and six for use in the vacuum of space.

The launcher will be able to haul more than 10o metric tons of cargo to low Earth orbit, a region a few hundred miles above the planet, according to SpaceX.

Teams at the Starbase facility in Texas have stacked a full-scale Super Heavy and Starship vehicle on a new launch pad for testing.

The Starship’s first orbital test flight, though audacious in scale, will aim to prove out the rocket’s basic launch and re-entry capabilities without fully testing out the complicated landing and recovery systems, according to a SpaceX filing with the Federal Communications Commission last year.

On the first orbital mission, SpaceX plans for the Starship to re-enter the atmosphere after one trip around Earth, heading for a controlled landing at sea in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. The Super Heavy booster will splash down in the Gulf of Mexico.

SpaceX wants to use the Starship vehicle to launch the company’s Starlink internet satellites, flying heavier, next-generation versions of the broadband relay stations than the spacecraft now being launched by the smaller Falcon 9 rocket. An animation recently released from SpaceX showed the company’s concept for deploying Starlink satellites from a Starship vehicle in orbit, using a mechanism that works like a giant Pez dispenser.

SpaceX has also won a $2.9 billion contract with NASA to develop the Starship into a human-rated lander for the agency’s Artemis moon missions. A moon derivative of the Starship, assisted by Starship refueling tankers, will be utilized for a lunar landing with astronauts, an event NASA says could happen no earlier than 2025.

NASA, meanwhile, is in the final stages of readying its government-owned heavy-lifter called the Space Launch System at Kennedy Space Center. It’s scheduled to launch for the first time this spring with an Orion crew capsule on an unpiloted Artemis test flight to lunar orbit and back to Earth.

The U.S. space agency plans to use the SLS and Orion as a transportation system for astronauts traveling between Earth and the moon. The Starship, and eventually more commercial lunar landers, will meet up with the Orion capsule near the moon to ferry crews to and from the lunar surface.

A full-stacked Starship rocket on SpaceX’s launch pad in South Texas. Credit: SpaceX

The FAA report issued Monday wraps up a long-running review of the effects of SpaceX’s South Texas operations on the natural environment and local residents.

The FAA issued a draft environmental report in September after consultation with several federal and state agencies, then held two virtual meetings in October to collect input from the public. The FAA said in December that the volume of roughly 18,000 public comments would cause the agency to miss its goal to complete the environmental review by the end of December.

Federal officials then shifted the timetable several more times until finally releasing the final Programmatic Environmental Assessment on Monday.

The FAA said SpaceX eliminated several parts of its proposal during the environmental review process, including a desalination plant to produce water for a deluge system at the Starship launch pad, and a natural gas pretreatment system and liquefier to refine methane fuel to purer levels than commercially available.

If SpaceX decides to use a water deluge system, it will truck the water into the Starbase facility from an outside source. And SpaceX told the FAA it can now rely on commercially available methane for its Raptor engines. Without a desalination plant or a natural gas liquefier, SpaceX also eliminated plans to build a power plant at the Starbase location.

The review marked a re-evaluation of the FAA’s original environmental impact statement before SpaceX started construction of the Boca Chica site in 2014. At that time, SpaceX planned to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from South Texas, but the scope of the project has since changed to focus on development of Starship and Super Heavy.

The FAA’s decision to finalize the draft environmental assessment completed last year will allow SpaceX to move forward with Starship and Super Heavy test flights in South Texas. The agency could have decided to begin a new environmental impact statement if the environmental effects would be significant and could not be properly mitigated.

A new environmental impact statement would have taken months, or even years, to complete.

Other mitigations outlined by the FAA on Monday include requirements that SpaceX monitor the effects of vibrations from its launches on nearby structures, repair damage to public roads caused by construction activity, restore algal flats in the area around the launch site, use its Starlink internet network to provide more opportunities for remote wildlife monitoring, and provide educational tours of the Starbase facility for local students.

Construction and ground support vehicles will also only drive on existing paved and unpaved roads at the Starbase facility, and SpaceX will provide an employee shuttle between Brownsville and the Boca Chica site to reduce vehicle traffic, the FAA said. SpaceX will also erect barriers and use tethers to help prevent debris from reaching the nearby wildlife refuge from a ground test anomaly.

The FAA is mandating that SpaceX participate in local fishing instruction activities, restore a nearby historical marker, and prepare a “historical context report” on events of the Mexican-American War and Civil War that took place in the area around Boca Chica Beach.

SpaceX is also required to make annual contributions of $5,000 to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fishing program, the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge Adopt-an-Ocelot Program, and the Peregrine Fund, a non-profit conversation initiative for birds of prey.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder and chief executive, said in February that the Starbase facility in Texas is best suited as a developmental and test site for the Starship rocket. Operational Starship flights could take off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where SpaceX is already building a Starship launch mount at pad 39A, the same location used for SpaceX’s astronaut launches to the International Space Station.

NASA officials, along with the agency’s independent safety panel, are concerned about the potential damage to the crew launch pad at Launch Complex 39A in the event of a Starship accident or explosion. SpaceX and NASA are working on solutions to reduce the risk, such as hardening pad 39A or outfitting nearby pad 40 for crew missions, according to Reuters.

SpaceX is also building a factory to produce Super Heavy boosters and Starship vehicles at Kennedy, similar to the manufacturing base built in Texas.

“The future role of Starbase, I think it’s well-suited to be our advanced R&D location,” Musk said in February. “So it’s like where we will try out new designs and new versions of the rocket, and I think probably … Kennedy will be our sort of main operational launch site.”

Under that plan, SpaceX will have teams at two locations building and launching Starships.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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