FAA delays completion of Starship environmental review

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SANTA FE, N.M. — The Federal Aviation Administration says it needs at least two more months to complete an environmental review of SpaceX Starship orbital launches from its Boca Chica, Texas, facility.

The FAA said Dec. 28 that was unable to meet an original Dec. 31 deadline to complete an environmental assessment of plans by SpaceX to conduct orbital launches of its Starship/Super Heavy vehicle from the Boca Chica facility the company calls Starbase. That review, formally known as a Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA), is a key requirement for obtaining an FAA launch license needed for those launches.

“However, due to the high volume of comments submitted on the Draft PEA, discussions and consultation efforts with consulting parties, the FAA is announcing an update to the schedule,” the FAA stated on its website. “The FAA now plans to release the Final PEA on February 28, 2022.”

The FAA received more than 18,000 public comments to the draft version of the report, released in September. SpaceX is working to respond to those public comments under the supervision of the FAA, the agency noted, but did not give further details about the analysis of the comments. Two public hearings about the review in October generated many comments both supportive and critical of SpaceX’s plans.

The environmental review process also includes consultations with other government agencies. The FAA noted that those consultations involve those regarding endangered species and preservation of historical sites.

The postponed completion of the environmental review means a delay in the award of an FAA launch license for Starship/Super Heavy orbital launches from Boca Chica. In November, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said he expected to get the launch license at the end of 2021 with a first orbital launch projected for January or February 2022.

It is not clear, however, that SpaceX would be ready for an orbital launch attempt on that schedule even if the environmental review and licensing process was completed as previously planned. Musk said in November that SpaceX would perform a “bunch of tests” of the Starship vehicle and its Super Heavy booster in December, but many of those anticipated tests, such as static fires, have not occurred yet.

There is also no guarantee that the new Feb. 28 deadline will not be extended again. An environmental review of a proposed launch site in Georgia, Spaceport Camden, suffered a series of delays lasting months before the FAA awarded a spaceport license for the facility Dec. 20.