The FAA Says SpaceX Can’t Expand Its Texas Launch Site Yet

After months of Suspense, the Federal Aviation Administration has finally weighed in on the environmental impacts of the planned expansion of SpaceX’s sprawling Starbase launch facility near Boca Chica, Texas. The agency says that if SpaceX takes some 75 actions to mitigate environmental hazards, the company can continue that expansion and apply for a launch license for its Starship spacecraft and its Super Heavy rocket booster.

Boca Chica is a critical location for the company, where engineers have ramped up their tests of Starship and Super Heavy in anticipation of deep-space flights. But local groups, including those focused on the environment and beach access, are concerned about increased pollution, the facility’s potential effects on wildlife and restrictions on access to public beaches. The site is located along the Gulf of Mexico and near wildlife sanctuaries, populated areas, local roads, liquefied natural gas facilities, and the border with Mexico.

The FAA released its first assessment last September and organized two virtual public hearings, where people in the area, as well as SpaceX fans and critics across the country, could voice their opinion. Now, in a report issued todayThe agency decided the company needs to address a number of issues before SpaceX gets its coveted launch license, including better monitoring of potential effects on vegetation and wildlife and educating surrounding communities about noise and road closures.

The FAA’s decision could have far-reaching implications, because until SpaceX gets the green light from the agency, it can’t proceed with testing and launching plans for Starship and the Super Heavy. The company certainly has a lot on that rocket. Along with NASA’s Space Launch System, the Super Heavy will be one of the few heavy-lift launch vehicles capable of transporting people and equipment to the Moon and eventually Mars. NASA has also invested in a lander version of Starship as part of its Artemis program, for when astronauts return to the moon in a few years.

At press time, the FAA and SpaceX had not responded to WIRED’s interview requests. But when the review came out, SpaceX tweeted a link, adding, “One step closer to Starship’s first orbital flight test.”

For his part, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had: threatened to move Starship tests to Florida if the FAA’s process was lengthy or required an environmental impact assessment (EIS), a more rigorous and time-consuming assessment, which would then be followed by a mitigation plan to reduce potential ecological damage.

The FAA didn’t go that route, instead ruling more favorably for SpaceX with a finding with no significant impact. The agency nevertheless says the company has more work to do, and it includes a lot in its 174-page report. It says SpaceX should enable biologists to look at effects on wildlife and remove any launch debris that falls into sensitive habitats. SpaceX must adjust lighting at the launch complex to minimize disruption to wildlife and residents; more advance notice of launches; limit how long State Highway 4 is closed and avoid closing on weekends and holidays. This environmental assessment isn’t the only assessment, either: Before SpaceX can proceed with its permit application to launch Starship, the US Department of Transportation will also assess its potential effects on public safety and national security.

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