After years of development, the SpaceX Starship comes to life for its first major launch. But before the 164-foot-tall rocket can take off into space, the company, led by Elon Musk, must overcome some final regulatory hurdles.
The launch will take place in Boca Chica, located at the southern tip of Texas and surrounded by state parks and wildlife refuge. The nature of its operations has raised concerns about potential harm to wildlife, particularly threatened coastal birds, in the region. SpaceX also bought dozens of people’s homes for relocation and caused other residents to evacuate during testing.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently completing a final environmental assessment of the site and was expected to make a decision on May 31. However, the agency has postponed the deadline for a sixth time and is now expected to finalize the review to June 13. It said SpaceX had made multiple changes to its application that required additional FAA analysis.
Last month, the FAA released 17,000 comments, some of which raise concerns about the SpaceX project’s impact on endangered species and the nearby Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The company has filed permits to develop an additional 17.6 acres of wetland alongside its existing Starbase facility – the size of the entire affected area is likely to be much larger. Boca Chica is one of the most important shorebird sites along the entire Gulf Coast, says David Newstead, director of the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program (CBBEP) Coastal Bird Program in southern Texas. It also serves as a critical site on the Central Flyway, connecting migratory birds between North and South America.
“There have been repeated explosions [at the testing site]many of which have littered the surrounding wildlife refuge and state park habitat, “says Newstead.” And the SpaceX properties are immediately adjacent to a busy, heavily used, important shorebird habitat.
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CBBEP monitoring efforts show that plovers, a federally threatened coastal bird species, in Boca Chica have declined from an estimated population of 327 in 2018 to 214 in 2020. But the population has seen a slight increase to 276. in 2021. These changes correlate with the start and end of launch tests on the site, Newstead says. SpaceX began manufacturing and testing its Starship missile systems locally in 2018.
“There has been a small increase [in piping plovers] last winter, but they haven’t recovered to the extent they were previously, ”adds Newstead. “In particular, from August 2021 to April 2022, there were no more launch tests.”
In addition to monitoring plover populations, the CBBEP also monitors nesting snow plovers and Wilson’s in Boca Chica. These birds have mostly disappeared from the area and appear to avoid nesting in sites close to the launch site, Newstead says.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has also determined that SpaceX’s continued operation in Boca Chica will impact animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Among those of greatest concern are red knot shorebirds and cats. wild jaguarundi and ocelot. Marine life is also endangered, including Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, which nests on the beaches of Boca Chica and is the most endangered sea turtle in the world.
SpaceX’s launch site could threaten wildlife populations by causing direct injury or death from explosions and testing. The USFWS and other entities also noted that the heat, pressure, and debris from launch tests that began in 2018 could harm the species or move them away from critical habitat. But the judgment on SpaceX’s environmental impact is ultimately in the hands of the FAA.
“I am optimistic that we will get approval [from the FAA]”Musk said in February, as reported by Spaceflight News.” Objectively, I think this is not something that will be harmful to the environment. We obviously flew the [Starship spacecraft] several times … We often started the engines. I think the reality is that it wouldn’t have a significant impact. “
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SpaceX is shooting for the 2023 launch of its Starship spacecraft, designed for travel to the moon and Mars. If the FAA were to decide to request a new environmental impact statement from the company, that would cause a six to eight-month setback, Musk said earlier this year. If so, SpaceX plans to move its Starship launch operation to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the company has already received the environmental approval it needs.
Newstead says that while it’s not uncommon for regulatory agencies to delay their decisions, the number of FAA referrals around the SpaceX project stands out.
“I assume the magnitude of the delays is a testament to the number of obstacles the agency is facing in authorizing this type of business,” he says. “If it were benign, [SpaceX] would have been allowed a long time ago ”.