- SpaceX is building a facility in Boca Chica, located at the southeastern tip of Texas, to develop, build, and launch fully reusable Starship-Super Heavy rockets.
- The company is focused on suborbital up-and-down flights of prototypes for now, but it eventually plans to launch Starships to orbit and land them back in Texas as soon as 2021.
- However, SpaceX needs Federal Aviation Administration approval for any major deviations from an exhaustive site plan finalised in July 2014.
- The FAA on Monday quietly posted three new written reevaluation documents that spell out SpaceX’s latest plans – one of which also documents concerns flagged by state and federal agencies.
- The agency also launched a new “community engagement portal” for the public to follow and weigh in on SpaceX’s Starship-Super Heavy project.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The Federal Aviation Administration has published several key documents and a new website tied to SpaceX’s future in Boca Chica, Texas.
The aerospace company is moving briskly at the site to develop, build, and launch a nearly 400-foot-tall launcher called Starship-Super Heavy. If the system â€” a steel spaceship and rocket booster â€” is realised as founder Elon Musk has envisioned, it could reduce the cost of access to low-Earth orbit by about 1,000-fold, revolutionise travel, send people to the moon, and maybe help populate Mars.
But while SpaceX privately owns its South Texas launch and development site, the Elon Musk-founded aerospace company has strayed far from its original plans.
In July 2014, the company completed a years-long environmental impact statement. The document described how SpaceX would use the site as a commercial spaceport to launch a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket roughly once per month. Any major deviations from that plan must be approved by the FAA.
Those deviations have most frequently arrived as written reevaluations. The FAA is not required to publish the documents, but the agency occasionally does so to its website for SpaceX’s project.
On Monday night, the FAA posted three new written reevaluation documents, which we’ve embedded at the end of this story: addendums from November 2019 and June 2020 to a prior stor written reevaluation, plus a new reevaluation from May 2020.
The agency also launched a new Starship-Super Heavy project website over the weekend to involve the public in its review of SpaceX’s plans to fly the vehicles to orbit from Boca Chica.
What the new FAA documents contain
The documents detail SpaceX’s plans to fly Starship prototypes on suborbital, up-and-down flights from Boca Chica, as well as what potential environmental impacts those plans may cause.
The FAA believes such activity falls within scope of SpaceX’s original plans because the company said it may fly “a variety of reusable suborbital launch vehicles” from the site (though it didn’t specify how big the vehicles might be, how frequently they’d lift off, or even which fuels they’d use).
The addendums formally cover much of what is already known about the launch site and SpaceX’s plans. Such information comes from prior FAA reevaluation documents, aerial photos, SpaceX fans documenting the company’s progress and test launches, and statements from Musk himself.
For example, the November 2019 addendum revises a 2-3 year suborbital test program for Starship flights approved in May 2019. The addendum calls for a schedule of more incremental test flights, and with more Starship prototypes. It also swaps an ambitious flight to 100 kilometers (62 miles) â€” what many consider the edge of space â€” for a flight up to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). (These numbers have since shifted again, though, initially to 20 kilometers [12.5 miles] in July and then, as Musk tweeted in September, to 15 kilometers [9.3 miles].)
The June 2020 addendum edits SpaceX’s Starship test plans again, calling for a revision to the layout of the company’s beachside launch site (below), which it calls the Vertical Launch Area.
Specifically, SpaceX requested permission to build a new launch mount and an extra suborbital test pad â€” just in case another one of its Starship prototypes catastrophically explodes and damages the primary pad, as happened on May 29, 2020.
“This anomaly caused damage to the test pad, which halted testing operations until repairs are completed,” the addendum says. “With a redundant test pad, SpaceX would be able to continue testing operations concurrent with repairing a damaged pad.”
The June 2020 addendum also provides a more detailed look at how SpaceX’s environmental impact has shifted since abandoning Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets from Boca Chica and committing to Starship.
One section covers its anticipated effects on nearby wetlands, another deals with noise. Yet another estimates the amount of climate-warming emissions SpaceX’s suborbital test program is likely to generate per year, since the system burns methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) with oxygen. A table combines test-firings of prototypes and suborbital “hop” launches to estimate nearly 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.
But the most important document of the bunch is the written reevaluation signed by the FAA on May 22. The file spans 26 pages, was required for SpaceX to receive its suborbital launch licence from the FAA on May 28, and incorporates concerns from state and federal environmental agencies.
In the reevaluation, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service took issue with several aspects of SpaceX’s plans and ongoing activities. Those criticisms targeted the “fluid nature” of the company’s construction projects, excessive road closures to Boca Chica Beach (which Brownsville locals prize), around-the-clock work that may affect nocturnal threatened or endangered species, prototype explosions, and sprawling wildfires the company has triggered.
The FAA responded to each concern in the document, ultimately determining “there are no significant environmental changes, and that all pertinent conditions and requirements of the prior approval have been met or will be met” with SpaceX’s suborbital test-flight plans.
But Starship can’t yet launch to orbit
However, SpaceX does not yet have the FAA’s go-ahead to fly any Starships into space from Boca Chica.
In its replies to concerns noted by other agencies â€” some of which call for a new EIS, which could take years to complete (an eternity in Musk time) â€” the agency repeatedly noted it is working with SpaceX to draft an “environmental review” of those plans.
The agency has since announced SpaceX is pursuing an environmental assessment, or EA. The move could save SpaceX valuable time in getting FAA approval to fly Starship to orbit, but only if the agency determines such a program won’t have impacts too different from plans spelled out in its original EIS from July 2014. If the impacts are significantly different, SpaceX may face an exhaustive new impact statement.
“The FAA continues to work with SpaceX on defining the project description and coordinating with the appropriate federal agencies. The FAA plans to initiate project scoping soon and ask for public input,” an agency spokesperson told Business Insider in an email.
The spokesperson did not provide a project timeline, but pointed to a “SpaceX Starship Super Heavy Project” website about the company’s orbital plans for Boca Chica, which the FAA calls a “community engagement portal.”
“The portal will provide project information, relevant documents for public review, a link to sign up to receive notifications on public meetings and review, and information to comment on documents as they become available,” a spokesperson told Business Insider in September.
The FAA also said it will update the website “as the project develops” and use it to notify the public when a draft EA will be available for comment. (The form for email alerts is under a “public involvement opportunities” section.)
SpaceX did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
The three new FAA documents are embedded below.
Read the November 2019 addendum:
Read the June 2020 addendum:
Read the May 2020 written reevaluation:
This story has been updated with new information.
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