SpaceX’s Starbase facility is located in a small town called Boca Chica, Texas, right on the southern tip of Texas along the Rio Grande river and the US-Mexico border. For the last few years, SpaceX has used the site to construct full-scale prototypes of Starship, the company’s next-generation monster rocket designed to take people and cargo to deep-space destinations like the Moon and Mars. SpaceX has already conducted various high-altitude test flights with Starship prototypes from Starbase, but now, the company hopes to actually launch Starship to space for the first time and send the vehicle to orbit.
In order to launch Starship to orbit from Starbase, SpaceX first needs a launch license from the FAA. And the fate of SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica has been hanging in the balance for the last year and a half as the FAA has been conducting an environmental review of how the company’s launch operations would impact the surrounding area. Now, with a decision made, SpaceX will need to address the more than 75 actions that the FAA has listed in order for the company to lessen its environmental impact on the area. If SpaceX makes those changes, it should help pave the way for the company to receive a launch license for Starship, though that still isn’t guaranteed.
SpaceX indicated on Twitter that it sees the decision as good news for moving forward with its launch plans.
One step closer to the first orbital flight test of Starship pic.twitter.com/jxqEsM62gc— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 13, 2022
SpaceX didn’t originally plan to launch its future Moon and Mars rocket from Texas. SpaceX purchased its first piece of land in Boca Chica back in 2012 with the intent to create a purely commercial launch site where the company could launch its much smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Ultimately SpaceX envisioned launching up to 12 times a year from the area, away from the hustle and bustle of its much busier launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida. With that goal in mind, the FAA conducted a full environmental review of SpaceX’s plans, and in 2014, the agency published an environmental impact statement, or EIS, detailing how those smaller launches would affect the area. An EIS can take many months and often years to complete, as it requires interviewing experts, scientists, business officials, and residents as well as conducting rigorous analysis and research about how a proposed action will impact the nearby human environment.
However, SpaceX’s plans have significantly changed since that first EIS was published. Beginning in 2018, the company seriously ramped up production activities in Boca Chica after deciding to devote the South Texas facility solely to the production of Starship prototypes. The more modest commercial launch facility that SpaceX once imagined has morphed into a thriving installation, filled with massive warehouses and tents and dominated by round-the-clock construction conducted by thousands of employees.
As SpaceX’s presence in the area grew, the company also began conducting high-altitude flight tests with its Starship prototypes — launching the vehicles up to heights around 30,000 to 40,000 feet in the air before attempting to land them back on Earth. Most of those tests ended in fiery explosions, with only one successfully sticking its landing. One prototype blew apart just before it was supposed to land in March 2021, spreading metal debris across the nearby wildlife refuge.
The test flights, combined with ongoing construction and ground testing, have led to growing tension with the nearby community. Starbase is situated next to a small neighborhood of a couple dozen homes called Boca Chica Village, which is only really accessible via one lone state highway that connects to Starbase. That road is frequently closed during tests and other demonstrations, limiting access to both the village and the nearby beach. Residents also complained of disruption to their daily lives as they were often asked to leave their homes during major tests. Many in Boca Chica Village have sold their properties to SpaceX, though a few residents have held onto their homes.
Finally, in late 2020, the FAA announced that it planned to conduct an environmental review of SpaceX’s plans to launch Starship to orbit from Starbase. In September 2021, the FAA released a draft programmatic environmental assessment, or PEA, laying out SpaceX’s updated plans for the area. The document revealed that, during the ongoing development of Starship, SpaceX plans to conduct up to 20 suborbital launches of Starship a year, sending the vehicle on its own to high altitudes or up to space — but not to orbit — before attempting to land it back on Earth. The company also plans to conduct up to five orbital and / or suborbital launches with Starship a year on top of the Super Heavy booster, a massive rocket that SpaceX is also developing to give Starship the extra thrust it needs to achieve orbit. During these launches, the Super Heavy would also attempt to land back on Earth, either at a landing pad or a platform in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
Ultimately, SpaceX estimated that it would have to close access to the state highway a total of 500 hours each year for normal operations and an extra 300 hours each year for anomalies. And things would certainly change as SpaceX progressed in its development. SpaceX anticipated that the number of orbital launches would increase over time with suborbital flights decreasing. Beyond the disruption, SpaceX also outlined other major additions to its plans, including the creation of a natural gas pretreatment system to purify methane to be used in the Starship rocket. And there was speculation that SpaceX would need to build a pipeline to transport gas to the plant.
SpaceX has since scrapped its plans for a natural gas pretreatment system, a power plant, and a desalination plant, according to the FAA’s decision released today. The company has also modified the capabilities of its Raptor engine, which is used to propel Starship. Because of these changes, SpaceX doesn’t need as many engines for its vehicles as it previously expected, but the FAA concluded that this wouldn’t discernibly change the environmental impact.
As part of its environmental review, the FAA held a comment period for SpaceX’s proposed plans, which drew both intense criticism and support from members of the public. Many critics demanded that the FAA conduct a new EIS, as the one that was conducted in 2014 was no longer adequate based on SpaceX’s new plans. The FAA said it received more than 18,000 comments during that period, which contributed to prolonging the decision-making process since SpaceX had to draft responses to each of the comments. The FAA also had to consult with various government agencies to make its decision, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Park Service, which raised some questions about SpaceX’s potential effects on the area. In a biological opinion given to the FAA, the FWS noted there’s been a decrease in the piping plover population, an endangered bird that nests in Boca Chica, correlated with the increase in SpaceX activity in the area, CNBC reported.
As part of this decision, the FAA will not conduct another EIS, which will potentially save SpaceX some time as it moves forward with its first orbital launch. But the company still has work to do. The more than 75 actions the FAA listed include things SpaceX can do to address its impact on air quality, sound levels, and access to the nearby beach. The company will need to provide more advanced notice of its launches to local authorities and the general public, for one. SpaceX also cannot conduct road closures during more than a dozen identified holidays, and it can only close the road up to five weekends a year. The FAA also wants SpaceX to continue to monitor for changes to the local wildlife populations, such as the sea turtles that nest in the area. Among other items, it’s asking the company to make donations to local wildlife groups and to monitor and adjust lighting at the launch site to avoid disorienting turtle hatchlings. The full list of mitigation measures can be found here.
Prior to the FAA decision, SpaceX also received a potential blow to its plans in Boca Chica from the Army Corps of Engineers. In March, the Corps informed SpaceX that it was withdrawing the company’s permit application for plans to expand Starbase, citing a lack of requested information provided by the company. SpaceX can reactivate the permit application process by providing the information that the Corps requested, though it’s unclear if and when SpaceX will comply.
Meanwhile, SpaceX has been working on a potential Plan B for Starship. In December, the company began construction on a Starship launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, an area that has been hosting orbital launches for the last half century. SpaceX already operates two launchpads out of the area for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. However, SpaceX plans to build its Starship launch site very close to the pad it uses to send humans to the International Space Station, and NASA wants the company to come up with a plan to make sure any Starship explosions don’t put that operational launchpad at risk, Reuters reported.
Though today’s news may sound like a win for SpaceX’s plans in Texas, the company still needs to receive a license from the FAA to launch its first Starship vehicle to orbit from the area. The FAA stressed that this decision does not mean that SpaceX will necessarily receive that license, as the company still must comply with all of the safety requirements needed to be approved for launch. Still, there is incentive to move things along. SpaceX is contracted by NASA to develop Starship as a lunar lander that can take people to and from the surface of the Moon for the agency’s Artemis program. NASA hopes to conduct the first landing as soon as 2025, and if SpaceX is going to get anywhere near that date, it needs to show that Starship can make it to space relatively soon.