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FAA finally releases its environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility

SpaceX's plan of operations at Boca Chica

After almost a half year of delays, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today released its environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s operations in Boca Chica, Texas, possibly recommending that future launches of Starship/Superheavy be allowed at that location but also leaving open the continuing ability of the federal government to block further flight tests.

The FAA determined that the Proposed Action would not result in significant environmental consequences and has issued a Mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact/Record of Decision (FONSI/ROD). … Required mitigation measures are listed throughout Chapter 3 of the final PEA [the environmental reassessment]. Should any future license or permit be issued to SpaceX to perform any aspect of the Proposed Action, the FAA will ensure that SpaceX implements these mitigation measures as conditions for licensure.

You can read the executive summary here [pdf]. The actual reassessment [referred to as the PEA] can be read here [pdf]. The key quote, on page 2 of the reassessment, is this:

The applicant has provided the FAA with a mission profile of proposed launch operations that is
analyzed in this PEA. The FAA’s Federal Action is to issue experimental permit(s) and/or a vehicle operator license to SpaceX for this mission profile, which is described in more detail in Section 2.1. If SpaceX modifies or adds operations as part of its Starship/Super Heavy program in the future, the FAA would analyze the environmental impacts of those activities in a tiered environmental document, which would summarize the issues discussed in this PEA that remain applicable (e.g., the environment around the Boca Chica launch site) and concentrate on the issues specific to the subsequent action (e.g., a mission profile involving a new landing site).

The completion of the environmental review process does not guarantee that the FAA will issue an experimental permit or vehicle operator license to SpaceX for Starship/Super Heavy launches at the launch site. [emphasis mine]

Essentially, SpaceX — after some revisions based on public comments — provided the FAA a detailed outline of its proposed operations, as summarized by the graph above (taken from the executive summary), and the FAA agreed to that program. However, this agreement by the FAA does not include any actual permits for flights or tests.

Furthermore, this recommendation by the FAA is not final. The reassessment also included in great detail a second option, dubbed the “No Action Alternative”:

Under the No Action Alternative, the FAA would not issue new experimental permits or licenses to SpaceX for any test or launch operations at the Boca Chica Launch Site. In this situation, SpaceX’s production and manufacturing that that do not require a license from the FAA or approval by any other federal agencies would continue at its existing facilities and production and manufacturing infrastructure would expand. Testing operations, including tank tests and static fire engine tests, that do not require approval by the FAA or other federal agencies would also continue at the VLA. In addition, SpaceX could conduct missions of the Starship prototype launch vehicle as authorized by the current license (LRLO 20‐119). 6 The license expires on May 27, 2023. This alternative provides the basis for comparing the environmental consequences of the Proposed Action.

Under this alternative, SpaceX operations at Boca Chica would be severely limited, and would essentially end in May ’23.

In reviewing both documents, it appears that the FAA has given SpaceX a go-ahead with this reassessment, but done so with many caveats. It will issue SpaceX its launch permits, probably on a per launch basis, each of which will require SpaceX to meet more than 130 pages of further environmental and social justice requirements. As noted in the first quote above, should SpaceX fail to meet any of those mitigation measures, future permits will be blocked.

Furthermore, the reassessment appears to have left it open for the White House to choose the “No Action Alternative.”

In either case this reassessment appears to have given any number of agencies within the federal government — including the White House — the clear ability to block SpaceX’s operations repeatedly, after each test flight.

I suspect SpaceX will immediately apply for a launch permit, and hope that political pressure will force the federal agencies to approve that permit.

NOTE: This analysis is based on a first quick review. The documents are long and purposely written to make it hard to figure out what is being proposed. More review is still required.

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  • Cotour

    “HOPE”, now that is something in these perverted, corrupt and contentious political times is considered a strategy for a multi-billion dollar company what has its eyes on landing on and populating both the moon and Mars.

    You can not make it up.

  • Richard M

    SpaceX’s official account just tweeted out an upbeat tweet: “One step closer to the first orbital flight test of Starship.”

    I’ve seen the internal Boca Chica Starbase statement, and it seems positive, too.

    So they seem to be taking a stance that they understand (when the rubber hits the road) this to be a Good Thing, and even the Biggest Good Thing they needed to start launching, so I am inclined to feel positive, too. Certainly there was a range of much worse possibilities FAA could have generated…and truth is, they’re already doing some of these 75 mitigations in various ways already.

    Doesn’t mean there won’t be lawfare by the BANANA suspects (Save RGV et al), but I think there is grounds for cautious optimism now. Stay tuned.

  • Realist

    Elon, so now you can finally light the candle!

  • Steve Richter

    The question is, how much has SpaceX being held back by this long review process? SpaceX could help itself in the court of public opinion by having its engineers and Starship designers speak to the public and answer questions as to how they want to test and develop their launch system.

    One question is, does super heavy have to be outfitted with the full complement of 33 raptor 2 engines? Would it help to test Starship on a short hop into the Pacific using a booster powered by fewer or older engines?

  • David Eastman

    Steve Richter – See the Everyday Astronaut video tours/interviews of Starbase. They are exactly what you request, and answer the questions you asked.

    Assuming you want even more: what company or government agency has given the public even 10% as much day to day access and information as SpaceX? Can you even imagine Bezos walking around the Blue factory for several hours with some random dude from youtube? And of course Bezos wouldn’t even be able to answer most of those questions, he’d be passing it down three layers at least of managers to actual engineers and designers.. Now do the same mental exercise with NASA.

  • Rockribbed1

    Completed Starships and completed boosters should be hopped to Florida as a test flight then caught by the new tower. The Florida launch pad should then stack the full rockets for orbital launch

  • Doubting Thomas

    Only 5 flights per year? How is any level of flight data to be developed in that number of flights? I’m sure in Musk’s mind advancement would come through a large number of flights with lots of learning. He (Musk) spoke of expecting “hundreds of flights” before man-rating the system with a substantial base of flight data.

    At 5 flights a year it will take 20 to 40 years to put crew on it.

  • Doubting Thomas: It appears you have had time to dig into the reassessment more than me. Where does it say only five flights per year? It will help me if you point me to it.

  • Patrick Underwood

    Doubting Thomas, I think the plan is to use Boca Chica for the initial tests while the second launch tower is finished at 39A in Florida, then conduct the operational launches from 39A.

    Of course it’s reported that NASA is “concerned” about the proximity of the new site to the existing Falcon 9 pad at 39A, from which Dragon crew and cargo launches are flown to the ISS. If a Starship blows up on or above the pad, it could potentially delay ISS launches, no doubt about it.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Robert – Page S-11 Table S-2 Proposed Annual Limits.

    Starship Suborbital Launch – Operational Limit 5

    Super Heavy Launch w/Footnote b- Operational Limit 5

    Footnote b Super heavy launch could be by itself or with Starship as second stage.

  • Richard M

    Doubting Thomas,

    Only 5 flights per year? How is any level of flight data to be developed in that number of flights?

    Five orbital flights per year is what SpaceX asked for in their application.

  • Doubting Thomas

    I see 4 explicit bribes to NGO’s or actual USG entities per year:

    $5K each to “Friends of Laguna Atacosa”, The “TPWD Tackle Loaner Program”, “Peregrine Fund”

    $10K to USFWS for “Road Material”

    $500K insurance per launch just in case noise or sonic boom (!) Waiting for those to collect for emotional damage,

    Can’t find what I expected which was $2 million per launch or per year (whichever is greater in the year) to the DNC.

  • Concerned

    This whole farce of an exercise is Exhibit A for drastically reducing the size of the federal government. Imagine if the same roadblocks had been thrown up in the mid 1800s while we were trying to build the railroad network. Of course many of the Econazis today would’ve been just fine with that.

  • Doubting Thomas: That table, on page 17 of the full reassessment, is for 10 launches per year, five suborbital and five orbital. At this time that is quite reasonable.

    However, if you look at the text on page 19 and 20, the company is proposing up to 20 Starship suborbital launches and 5 orbital launches annually. It does say the company intends to limit Boca Chica launches to 5 per year, but the text makes it clear that all could change with time.

    The text however clearly suggests that once this rocket is considered operational SpaceX will shift much of its operations to Kennedy, probably because of the limits being placed on it by the federal bureaucracy, attempting to block it. We must wonder how the locals in Brownsville will react to this.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Robert – I suppose that SpaceX will do a few more suborbital Starship shots. But I got the impression from a variety of interviews with Elon Musk that SpaceX felt that after 10+ KM altitude flights, they needed to transition to 2 stage flights to get the data and experience they needed. Five per year ain’t much for the kind pf program Musk wants.

    This is why a few of us have been writing Gov Abbott non-stop asking for more push against the Feds. Push against the Feds is not what Gov Abbott is noted for in Texas.

  • Doubting Thomas: I will be doing a Robert Pratt podcast tomorrow on this subject. This is part of what think will be increasing pressure on Abbott from the local press.

    Unfortunately, he is as weak as my own Republican governor, Doug Ducey. Can’t expect much from him.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Robert – Yes I listen to Robert Pratt. Also find the website Texas Score Card useful..

    Did you see where Florida Gov DeSantis finally pointed out that if Gov Abbott would actually send people BACK over the border or stop them from crossing, 70% of the illegal immigration problem would be solved.

    I will say in fairness to Abbott, the Texas Constitution, deliberately gives the Gov weak powers and actually distributes power among other elected executive offices (Lt Gov, AG, Land Commissioner, etc). Another problem in Texas is the Republic Speaker of the House, Dade Phelan, who has willingly given House leadership positions to Democrats. But Abbott seems to be the poster boy for unwillingness to really act. Still, he is the nominee for the Republicans so…….

  • Col Beausabre

    Doubting Thomas, It’s called the shakedown. “Nice rocket you got there, be a shame if it wasn’t allowed to fly”
    SpaceX doubtless figures these relatively small bribes to be part of the cost of doing business, just like in any Third World banana republic. It’s called la mordida, down that way – “the bite”. (known as “something for the big guy” in the rest of the US)

  • Bill Mullen

    Don’t forget the book report SpaceX has to write on the Mexican War & the Civil War! “The company will also contribute to local education and preservation efforts – including preparing a historical context report of events of the Mexican War and Civil War that took place in the geographic areas well as replicating and installing missing ornaments on a local marker.”

    “Historical Context” hmmmm.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I watched a “Cool Worlds Lab” video on YouTube yesterday. This is an astrophysics-oriented web series, not a space exploration and rockets one. But this very recent episode was titled “Starship – This Changes Every erything!”

    Indeed it does, and the host was at pains to draw the comparison between the old-style aerospace thinking at NASA that gave us SLS and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the Starship and the new astronomy missions it could enable. He admitted that professional astronomy thinking needed to adapt to the reality of Starship, focusing on multiple simpler missions, even to the point of re-using de-commissioned ground-based observatory mirrors instead of spending billions on ultralight equipment, constrained by the mass and size payload constraints of current rockets.

    As an amateur astronomer I was excited to hear a professional coming to the same conclusions I had some time ago, but how does this relate to the SpaceX approval? Well, I think SpaceX faces an enormous challenge with Starship from the astronomy community as well as others… the demand for Starships and their derivatives is going to be, well… astronomical!

    Problem is, I don’t see SpaceX’s (visible) manufacturing plans keeping up with this market – the plants in Florida and Texas are only sufficient for moderate production, and more significantly both sites face site growth constraints. For example, Cape Canaveral is the US primary scientific and development spaceport, and does not have the room for orders of magnitude growth in launch frequency and tonnage. Boca Chica may not either, for different reasons.

    If every new launch facility faces Texas-style birth and growth pains, SpaceX is going to be challenged to come even close to satisfying demand, and I don’t see anyone else even thinking about getting into this reusable super-heavy lift business!

  • sippin_bourbon

    Col B

    Or as President Biden recently said “Lots of Luck on your trip to the moon”.

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