FAA delays release of SpaceX assessment of space rocket ‘holy grail’

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) – The Federal Aviation Administration has pushed back the release of an environmental review on SpaceX, which is developing its Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle in hopes of a one-day launch from the south, by a month. from Texas to March.

On Monday, the FAA announced that the agency’s final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) on the project — and how it affects the environment around Boca Chica Beach — will not be released until March 28. The report was to be released on February 28. .

But the delay came as no surprise after SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk visited the Rio Grande Valley last week and told a crowd he expected to receive the agency approval in March.

“We don’t have clear information on the FAA,” Musk said. “We had a rough indication that there might be an approval in March.”

SpaceX’s Elon Musk gives an update on Starship, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, near Brownsville, Texas. Musk said the first orbital flight of Starship – the world’s most powerful rocket ever built – could take place in a month or two. Although he anticipates failures, he is confident that Starship will reach orbit by the end of this year. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

Musk made a rare public appearance on Thursday night under a prototype of the massive Starship rocket system where he spoke in front of hundreds of people for more than an hour to explain the company’s mission and the reason for building it. a launch pad in southern Texas, a few miles from the US-Mexico border. .

He called the Starship “a holy grail breakthrough” and said its development would give the world “a fast, fully reusable rocket system” capable of carrying passengers and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars and beyond.

“Why are we doing this? Pretty epic. What’s the kind of deep meaning behind this? Why build a giant reusable rocket? Why make life multi-planetary. Well, I think that’s just an incredibly important thing for the future of life itself,” Musk told a cheering crowd.

But he admitted that despite more than 100 tests of the boosters, they have a lot of work to do to get the 164-foot-tall rocket with 33 raptor engines and capable of carrying 100 tons into space and fully operational.

“I’m incredibly proud of the SpaceX team and all the support we’ve received from Cameron County, Brownsville, South Padre,” Musk said from the launch site he dubbed “Starbase in Texas.” , which is less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico.

The SpaceX Starship prototype is seen Nov. 30, 2020 from the beach in Boca Chica, less than a mile from the launch pad. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Musk said he chose the relatively isolated location because it’s one of the southernmost points in the United States to test what would be the largest such flying object.

Musk said there are “confluence factors” that this location offers to help put Starship into orbit.

He said that includes launching eastward to get “help from the Earth’s rotation.” And he said “the closer you are to the earth’s equator, the more of a boost it is”. And they needed a “good open area” that was relatively sparsely populated.

“It’s basically here and Cape Canaveral or Cape Kennedy” in Florida, he said.

But not everyone is convinced.

Ecologists in the Rio Grande Valley fear the region could suffer irreversible damage from so many rocket tests and launches, some of which have resulted in fiery explosions.

But FAA officials told Border Report that “SpaceX cannot launch the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle until the FAA completes its licensing process, which includes ongoing environmental review and other security and financial responsibility requirements”.

The non-profit organization Save RGV asked the FAA last year to better monitor this project and provide residents with more data and information on the risks to border communities and wildlife related to rocket tests. In progress.

“SpaceX really wants to launch their Starship/Super Heavy, so they’re clearly pressuring the FAA to give them the go-ahead,” Save RGV’s Jim Chapman told Border Report in September when the agency released their plans. of PEA.

After the draft was released on September 17, the FAA received more than 19,000 comments, which the agency promised Monday to post on its draft website on February 18.

Boca Chica Beach, Texas is a popular nesting site for endangered sea turtles. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

But Chapman and others say the FAA was controlled by the hugely popular SpaceX, and the federal agency allowed the private space company to decide what kind of environmental assessment it would conduct. Usually the federal government decides what kind of environmental review is needed and many feel that a more thorough environmental impact assessment is needed for a huge project like this.

Dinah Bear, who for decades served as general counsel for the Council on Environmental Quality, the agency that oversees national environmental protection law, said she had never heard of a company capable of making decisions like SpaceX.

“In 25 years of overseeing NEPA within the federal government, I have to say that I have never heard an agency say this before!” she recently told Border Report.

In a Nov. 1 letter she submitted, as part of the public comment period, Bear called for stricter oversight.

“I am writing to express my concern about important elements of the FAA’s process for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) proposal to decide whether or not to approve the SpaceX Starship/Super program. Heavy Launch Vehicle at the SpaceX Boca Chica launch site in Cameron County, Texas. In particular, I am concerned that the FAA is showing too much deference to the applicant in the NEPA process. Additionally, the potential effects of this proposed action require the FAA to begin preparation of an environmental impact statement,” she wrote.

Endangered sea turtles nest just yards from the boat launch on the sand dunes of Boca Chica Beach. And the sex of reptiles is determined by the temperature that the eggs experience. So many conservationists fear that the extreme heat of the launches could cause the turtles to give birth to only one sex type, which could lead to the species becoming extinct again in the years to come.

Last week, a nonprofit organization filed a lawsuit with the USDA against Neuralink, a company founded by Musk, accusing it of violating federal animal welfare law related to “invasive brain experiments.” and fatalities carried out on 23 monkeys”.

On Monday, The Hill reported that NASA is concerned that the Starlink satellite project, a Musk pet project, could create crowded highways in space that could lead to collisions between objects in low Earth orbit.

Musk said Thursday that his company is planning 50 test launches this year. “It’s one launch per week on average, so we have a busy year ahead of us,” he said.

However, if the FAA finds that the test launches “significantly affect” the environment, the agency can order a much more detailed assessment and that could take years and delay its plans to transport humans to Mars soon.

Musk says his company also has plans to one day transport animals to other planets.

“It’s very important, long-term critical that we become a multiplanetary species and eventually go beyond the solar system,” Musk said Thursday. “We are the guardians of life. The creatures we love cannot create spatial movements, but we can, and we can take them with us.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at [email protected].

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