FAA green light for SpaceX orbital launches in Boca Chica

If there is any government body that has become a supervillain for SpaceX fans, it is the FAA. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is known for being the US federal agency in charge of civil air transport security. But until his run-in with SpaceX, few knew that he also oversees security around commercial launches (and, even less well known, re-entries of objects owned by private companies). As is already well known, Elon Musk decided to use his facilities in Boca Chica (Cameron County, Texas) as a test center and, eventually, as an orbital launch center for his gigantic Starship system. And that’s when SpaceX’s interests entered a direct collision course with the FAA. Because that of launching the largest rocket in the world from commercial facilities located in a protected area and with nearby population centers called, how could it be otherwise, the attention of the FAA.

The Starhip S20 and the Super Heavy B4 on the launch ramp last February in Boca Chica (SpaceX).

By now, we’re all familiar with the scuffles between the FAA and SpaceX that have caused low-altitude launches to be delayed for more than one Starship prototype. But the big problem came when the Hawthorne company confirmed that it was going to use Boca Chica —or Starbase, as SpaceX calls its facilities in the area— for orbital launches of the Starship system. One thing is “jumps” of a few kilometers in altitude by the second stage of the system and quite another to launch the full Super Heavy/Starship set. The FAA then ordered to expand its planned environmental report to assess the impact of SpaceX activities in the area and the effects of the launches of the largest launcher in history, as well as the associated safety measures. The delay in the publication of the aforementioned report served at times as an excuse to mask the delay in the first orbital launch of the Super Heavy/Starship set, a delay that we now know has been motivated mainly by the need to introduce the new Raptor 2 engines and improve various elements of the prototypes, such as the heat shield (although, let’s not forget, the main person responsible for promoting the enthusiasm regarding the test schedule was Elon Musk himself with his forecasts, as always, highly optimistic).

The two parts of the SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica (FAA).
Details (somewhat out of date) of SpaceX facilities (FAA/SpaceX).
Restricted and protected areas in Boca Chica (FAA).
Present facilities (from last year) and planned in the Boca Chica launch area (FAA/SpaceX).
Recreation of the launch area with the two planned integration towers (FAA/SpaceX).

But, as they say, everything comes and everything passes. The FAA has published today, June 13, 2022, half a year later than expected, its conclusions on the environmental impact of Elon Musk’s company, which can be summed up in one word: FONSI. And no, we are not talking about the singer, but about the acronym for “no significant impact has been found” (Finding of No Significant Impact), which translated into Roman paladino means that SpaceX has the green light to carry out orbital launches of its Starship system. Surprisingly, this approval is valid for a maximum of five launches and five suborbital tests per year, figures identical to those originally requested by the company and that many assumed that the FAA would restrict. In addition, SpaceX must introduce up to 75 measures to reduce its environmental impact in the area. The measures range from introducing changes in lighting so that it does not affect the local fauna so much to limiting traffic on the only road (SH 4) that connects the two areas of Starbase and the beach. Regarding the highway, SpaceX must announce its closures with more time in advance and may not close it for more than 500 hours a year (extendable to 800 hours if there are technical problems). Nor will it be able to close the road for 18 days of vacation or more than five weekends a year and it is committed to encouraging the use of buses by its employees. Other measures include reducing the transport of sediment and dirt in the area or preventing hydrocarbon leaks, as well as making an annual contribution of five thousand dollars to a local ecological society.

33 Raptor 2 engines on the Booster 7 prototype (Elon Musk/SpaceX).
Limitations of SpaceX operations in Boca Chica. They are the same ones originally proposed by the company (FAA).
Sound footprint of the launch of the Starship system (FAA).
Carbon footprint of the SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica (FAA).

The delay in the publication of the report is due, according to the FAA, to the enormous avalanche of comments —more than 18,000— received when the agency asked for the public’s opinion regarding the preparation of the document. Some of these 75 measures have already been introduced or are in the process of being introduced. Now the FAA must give SpaceX the orbital launch permit for the Starship system, a permit that, in addition to the environmental report, also depends on the adequacy of other measures (launch safety, level of risk of damage to inhabitants or homes of nearby towns, etc.). Be that as it may, the truth is that SpaceX no longer has to fear the ghost of the FAA when it comes to launching the Starship system from Boca Chica. Will the B7 and S24 be the prototypes that make this first orbital launch?

The Starhip S20 and the Super Heavy B4 last February in Boca Chica (SpaceX).
S24 en route to test/launch area (SpaceX).
The Starhip S20 and the Super Heavy B4 (SpaceX).

References:

  • https://www.faa.gov/space/stakeholder_engagement/spacex_starship
  • https://www.faa.gov/sites/faa.gov/files/2022-06/SpaceX_Starship_Super_Heavy_at_Boca_Chica_FONSI_ROD_Spanish.pdf
  • https://www.faa.gov/sites/faa.gov/files/2022-06/Final_PEA_Executive_Summary.pdf

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