SpaceX testing OK’d: FAA: no further assessment needed for now

FAA: no further assessment needed for now


The Federal Aviation Administration has decided that no supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to the original 2014 EIS allowing SpaceX to operate at Boca Chica is necessary, despite substantial evolution of the company’s plans in South Texas.

The FAA conducted a “written re-evaluation” of SpaceX’s intentions, concluding that the 2014 EIS remains current and “substantially valid,” rendering a supplemental EIS unwarranted. The FAA issued its “record of decision” in July 2014 based on the original environmental assessment and EIS in July 2014, green-lighting SpaceX’s development of the launch site. The groundbreaking took place in September 2014, with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and then-governor Rick Perry in attendance.

At the time, Boca Chica was touted as the future home of the world’s first commercial spaceport. SpaceX secured authorization from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for no more than 12 launches of its Falcon 9 rockets per year, including a maximum of two launches of the Falcon Heavy.

The first Falcon Heavy launch didn’t take place until February 2018, with two more occurring in April and June of this year, all launches taking place at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The focus at Boca Chica has shifted, however, as the company pursues rapid development and testing of prototypes for the Starship spacecraft. In combination with the massively powerful Super Heavy booster, Starship is intended to get humans to Mars in the not-too-distant future with the ultimate goal of colonizing the planet.

“SpaceX remains committed in its mission to colonize Mars,” according to the FAA’s re-evaluation.

Starship’s earliest prototype, Starhopper, flew to an altitude of 150 meters on Aug. 27, marking an important milestone for the company. Musk tweeted on Aug. 28 that the next goal is a 20-kilometer flight of the Mk1 (the next Starship prototype, under construction at Boca Chica) in October, with an orbital attempt “shortly thereafter.” A similar prototype, the Mk2, is being built at Cocoa, Fla., near Cape Canaveral.

Musk tweeted that the Mk1 will be complete in time for a Sept. 28 presentation he plans to deliver at Boca Chica on the progress of Starship development.

In its re-evaluation, the FAA breaks the Starship “experimental test program” down into three phases. The first phase, including verifying ground systems by test-fueling the prototype, conducting brief engine ignition tests and barely lifting Starhopper off the ground, is complete. So has the part of phase two that involves launching Starhopper to up to 150 meters, or about 500 feet, the craft’s second and final flight.

Remaining as part of phase two is for SpaceX to launch the Mk1 up to three kilometers, or about 1.8 miles, which the FAA terms a “medium hop.” Phase three of the Starship test program will involve a maximum of three “large hops” — suborbital flights to 100 kilometers, or 62 miles — as well as “flip(ping) the Starship at high altitude, and conduct(ing) a reentry and landing,” according to the FAA.

The re-evaluation states that SpaceX anticipates the test program lasting two to three years, and that the results of phase one and two will dictate what happens in phase three. The re-evaluation covers only the first two phases since SpaceX currently lacks adequate data for the FAA to analyze the potential environmental impacts of phase three, according to the agency.

“Prior to commencing Phase 3, SpaceX would be required to submit data and information to the FAA so the FAA can conduct another environmental review before issuing any new or modified (launch) licenses or permits to conduct these operations,” said the agency.