The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday released the results of its Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of SpaceX’s orbital launch plans for the company’s Boca Chica site.
The agency issued a mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), which puts SpaceX a step closer to conducting the first orbital launch of a Starship-Super Heavy prototype at Boca Chica, though it does not automatically grant SpaceX a launch license, which is a separate process with a decision still pending, according to the FAA.
The PEA was originally supposed to have been completed Dec. 31, 2021, though its release was delayed several times, according to the agency, because of the volume of public feedback that had to be processed. The inaugural orbital test launch, which SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said is unlikely to be successful, has been on hold pending the outcome of the FAA’s assessment process.
The orbital launch would be many times more powerful than the non-orbital Starship test flights that have taken place so far at Boca Chica. Those launches involved prototypes fitted with only three engines, while the Super Heavy booster would be fitted with 33 Raptor V2 engines, each capable of producing 500,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.
The FAA said on Monday that it will require SpaceX to take more than 75 actions to mitigate environmental impacts from the proposed orbital launches.
Based on consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the FAA will require that further advance notice of launches be given to reduce the amount of time that S.H. 4, the highway to SpaceX and Boca Chica, is closed for launch operations.
“Closures will not be allowed on 18 identified holidays, and weekend restrictions are limited to no more than five weekends per year, ensuring robust access to the refuge and park throughout the calendar year,” announced the agency. “The FAA will also require real-time notifications when access restrictions begin, end or are canceled.”
The FAA is also requiring measures to address impacts to fish, wildlife and plants as well as resources protected by the National Historic Preservation Act.
The FAA said the environmental assessment is just one part of the launch license application process and that a decision on granting a license for the first orbital launch from Boca Chica is still pending. Among these measures are ongoing monitoring of vegetation and wildlife by a qualified biologist; ensuring notification of surrounding communities in advance about potential engine noise and sonic booms from launches; coordinating with state or federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitat; and adjusting lighting at the launch complex to minimize impact on wildlife and the nearby beach.
The environmental review is just part of the FAA Launch Operator License application process, said the agency.
“SpaceX also must meet FAA safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements before a license is issued for any launch activities,” the FAA said Monday.
Environmental groups immediately criticized the FAA’s FONSI, with the Center for Biological Diversity for one calling for a more comprehensive and lengthy Environmental Impact Statement. The FAA could have called for an EIS in its PEA findings but did not.
“The mitigation measures that SpaceX is proposing are absolutely inadequate and won’t save Boca Chica’s incredibly important migratory bird habitat,” said Jared Margolis, a CBD senior attorney. “Federal aviation officials have been shirking their responsibility, but the FAA has a legal obligation to take a hard look at the environmental harms of this expansion.”