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Environment

FAA says it will finish environmental assessment of SpaceX facility in South Texas by year’s end

A prototype of SpaceX's Starship spacecraft is seen at the company's Boca Chica launch facility on September 28, 2019, near Brownsville. The Starship is a massive space vehicle with reusable boosters that is meant to take people to the Moon or even Mars.
A prototype of SpaceX's Starship spacecraft is seen at the company's Boca Chica launch facility on September 28, 2019, near Brownsville. The Starship is a massive space vehicle with reusable boosters that is meant to take people to the Moon or even Mars.

After the environmental assessment, the FAA will decide whether to give SpaceX the necessary permits for an orbital launch.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced on Monday that it plans to finish an environmental assessment of SpaceX’s expansion plans by the end of this year.

SpaceX is trying to expand its launch facility at Boca Chica Beach, a county park 20 miles outside of Brownsville. From this newly expanded site, SpaceX wants to launch rockets into space, using a 29-engine booster attached to a rocket called Starship.

SpaceX’s plan is to reuse the rocket several times, including the booster, which would be caught by its launch tower after each Starship launch. The fully reusable launch system would be the first of its kind. SpaceX has yet to launch its first orbital flight, however, as it waits for FAA approval.

The FAA says they have completed one of five processes to determine whether to give SpaceX launch permits or the go-ahead to expand. One of those processes is the environmental review, which concluded its public comment phase earlier this month.

Several environmental advocacy groups and agencies have criticized the draft version of the FAA’s review, which was released in September. Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Chief Operating Officer Clayton Wolf was concerned with SpaceX’s plans, writing in a Nov. 1 letter that the site expansion plans were unclear and they would impact federally protected species.

The FAA could take two routes at the end of the year: Give SpaceX the permits necessary to fly to space, or order an environmental impact statement (EIS) to fully examine the scope of their plans. If the FAA does the latter, the analysis could take up to a few years to complete.

The FAA issued their last EIS to the company in 2014, when SpaceX’s Boca Chica site was meant for 12 rocket launches a year. Its expansion plans are far larger than when the company first made its way to the Laguna Madre area. The FAA itself said the expansion plans fell “outside of the scope” of the 2014 EIS.

Related: SpaceX Prepares To Launch Largest Rocket Ever Despite Ongoing FAA Review

SpaceX’s current operations at Boca Chica Beach and Boca Chica Village, a small community two miles away from the launch site, are the ire of local activists and some city leaders. Criticism came after SpaceX’s first rocket launches ended in explosions, sending debris across the protected wetlands that surround the launch pad.

Even at its current scope, SpaceX routinely requests the county to close the lone road to Boca Chica Beach for testing activities. This has also been heavily criticized by groups like Save RGV, a nonprofit organization advocating against SpaceX’s expansion, that claim SpaceX has exceeded its yearly allotted road closures.

“To increasingly deny access to eight miles of public beach, state parkland and national wildlife refuge is a significant human impact and needs to be addressed, particularly as much of the experimental engine and rocket testing could be done at a safer and less public testing location elsewhere,” SAVE RGV wrote to the FAA on Nov. 1.

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