FAA releases final assessment of SpaceX's Starbase and Starship program, requires changes

·3 min read
Max Q: Space 'Xed

The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday published its highly anticipated environmental assessment of SpaceX's Starbase launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, and the Starship launch program, with the agency finding that SpaceX's plans would not result in significant impacts to the environment — but requiring the company to implement a number of mitigation measures before it can start conducting test flights.

The FAA's Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA), which comes in at 183 pages, lays out the potential consequences of SpaceX's Starbase complex and Starship launch program on everything from noise pollution due to sonic booms, to light pollution on local sea turtle populations. Overall, SpaceX will need to take over 75 mitigatory actions to comply with the assessment, the FAA said in a press release.

For example, the company will have to comply with a launch site lighting management plan to ensure no disruptions to sea turtles, with a "qualified biologist" conducting lighting evaluations during key weeks during the turtles' life cycles. SpaceX will also have to "initiate coordination" with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to mitigate impacts to protected bird species, including the piping plover. According to a document from the USFWS obtained by CNBC, recent declines in piping plover populations are correlated with activity at Starbase.

The PEA was a long time coming, with the FAA first announcing it would conduct an environmental assessment way back in November 2020. The agency published a draft PEA last September, but this final document was beset by delays as the FAA sought input from other government agencies and the public. While SpaceX awaited the final assessment, it has continued work at Starbase, rolling out multiple prototypes of the giant Starship and testing the upper stage in high-altitude tests.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also threatened to move Starbase to Florida, where the company currently conducts launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, should the delays persist. (Though the day before this PEA was released, Reuters reported that NASA would want assurances that a Starship launch from Florida would not harm infrastructure needed to support the International Space Station.)

FAA's final determination — what's called a "Mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact" — means that the company will not have to engage in a much more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement, which would likely take many more months, if not years, to complete. But today's finding from the FAA doesn't guarantee a launch license, even if SpaceX complies with the more than 75 changes. "SpaceX’s license application must also meet FAA safety, risk, and financial responsibility requirements," the PEA says.

SpaceX has huge plans for Starbase, which is located in Boca Chica, on the southern tip of Texas. The company told the FAA it wants to conduct up to 20 suborbital launches of Starship annually, and up to, but not more than, five orbital launches annually. These launches would see Starship's Super Heavy booster return to Earth, much the same way the company lands its Falcon 9 boosters on floating sea barges today.

SpaceX tweeted that the final assessment brought the company "one step closer" to sending Starship to orbital space for the first time.

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The story was updated to include the location of Starbase.

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