After years of development, the SpaceX Starship is coming to life for its first big launch. But before the 164-foot-tall rocket can be launched into space, the company led by Elon Musk must overcome some of the latest regulatory hurdles.
Cultivation will take place in Boca Chican, located in the far south of Texas and surrounded by state parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The nature of its operations has raised concerns about potential damage to the region’s wildlife species, especially endangered seabirds. SpaceX has also bought dozens of homes to relocate, and has emptied other residents in the tests.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently conducting a final environmental assessment of the site and a decision is expected by May 31. However, the agency postponed the deadline for the sixth time and now the study is expected to be completed in June. 13. SpaceX said it made several changes to the app that required additional FAA testing.
Last month, the FAA released 17,000 comments, some of which raise concerns about the impact of the SpaceX project on endangered species and the surrounding Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The company submitted permits for the development of an additional 17.6 acres of wetlands next to its Starbase facility, which is likely to be much larger in size for the entire affected area. Boca Chica is one of the most important seabird sites on the entire Gulf Coast, says David Newstead, director of the Coastal Bend Bays and Esturies Program (CBBEP) in South Texas. It also serves as a critical site for the Central Flyway, which connects migratory birds between North and South America.
“There have been explosions over and over again [at the testing site]many of which have spread debris to nearby wildlife sanctuaries and state park habitat, “says Newstead.
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CBBEP monitoring efforts show that in Boca Chican, the number of birds, a federally threatened bird species, has declined from 327 in 2018 to 214 in 2020. But the population rose slightly in 2021 to 276. start and stop testing at the site, Newstead says. SpaceX began manufacturing and testing its Starship rocket systems locally in 2018.
“It was a small climb [in piping plovers] last winter, but they weren’t restored to their original state, ”added Newstead. “It is noteworthy that from August 2021 to April 2022, no further launch tests were conducted.”
The CBBEP not only monitors bird populations, but also monitors snowflakes that nest in Boca Chica and Wilson’s woodpeckers. These birds have mostly disappeared from the area and appear to avoid nesting in areas close to the launch site, Newstead says.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has also determined that SpaceX’s activities in Boca Chican will affect animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. Of particular concern are the red knots of coastal birds and wild cats of jaguarundi and ozelot. Marine life is also endangered, including the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, which nests on the beaches of Boca Chica and is the world’s most endangered sea turtle.
The SpaceX launch site could threaten wildlife populations by causing direct injury or death through explosions and tests. The USFWS and other entities have also stated that heat, pressure and debris from the launch tests, which began in 2018, could damage the species or move it away from critical habitat. But SpaceX’s environmental impact ruling is ultimately up to the FAA.
“I am optimistic that we will get acceptance [from the FAA]”I think this is not something that will be harmful to the environment. Clearly, we’ve flown [Starship spacecraft] many times … We fired a lot of engines. I don’t think reality will have a big impact. “
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SpaceX is planning to launch its Starship spacecraft by 2023, which is designed to travel to the Moon and Mars. If the FAA decides to ask the company for a new environmental impact statement, it would result in a six- or eight-month delay, Musk said earlier this year. In that case, SpaceX plans to relocate its Starship launch operation to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where it has already received the environmental approval it needs.
Newstead says it’s not uncommon for regulatory agencies to delay their decisions, but the FAA’s number of delays in the SpaceX project stands out.
“I would assume that the measure of the delays is a testament to the obstacles the agency faces in authorizing this type of activity,” he says. “If all goes well, [SpaceX] they would have permission long ago. ‘