FAA environmental review to allow Starship orbital launches after changes

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PASADENA, Calif. — A Federal Aviation Administration environmental review has concluded that SpaceX can conduct orbital launches of its Starship vehicle from its Texas test site, but only after completing dozens of mitigations to reduce impacts on the environment and the public.

The FAA issued June 13, after nearly half a year of delays, what is formally known as a mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for SpaceX’s proposal to perform orbital launches of its Starship vehicle, atop its Super Heavy booster, from Boca Chica, Texas. The mitigated FONSI means that SpaceX is cleared, from an environmental standpoint, to carry out those launches once it implements more than 75 measures to mitigate environmental effects.

Among those mitigations is changes in closures in the road that leads to both the SpaceX site, called Starbase, as well as a public beach. SpaceX will provide more advanced notice of closures for testing and launches. It will be prohibited from closing access during 18 holidays and will be limited to five weekend closures per year. Closures will be limited to 500 hours a year for normal operations and up to 300 more hours “to address anomalies,” according to FAA documents. The review is for up to five orbital launches per year, as well as five suborbital launches and ground tests.

Other mitigations included in the modified FONSI include changes in lighting at the facility, monitoring of wildlife in the area by a “qualified biologist” and use of shuttles to transport employees to and from Starbase to limit traffic. In addition, SpaceX modified its proposal to eliminate infrastructure such as a desalination plant and a power plant that the company says it no longer needs to support launch operations.

Completion of the environmental review, though, does not yet provide final clearance for SpaceX to begin orbital launches from Boca Chica. The company must implement the mitigations and also obtain an FAA launch license, the schedules for which neither the FAA nor SpaceX disclosed. SpaceX is also continuing to test the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle.

SpaceX appeared to welcome the FAA decision. “One step closer to the orbital flight test of Starship,” the company tweeted, linking to the FAA website with the decision and related documents. The company offered no further comment.

Environmental groups remain concerned about the impacts of Starship launches from Boca Chica. “We are disappointed in this decision, but surely Elon Musk and his team don’t actually want to harm endangered species,” said Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, in a statement. That organization is concerned about how Starship launches affect endangered and threatened species like the piping plover in the area.

“We’re hoping that the SpaceX team will see that life here on Earth is worthy of more consideration and agree to minimizing the impacts at the Boca Chica facility,” he said.