New stage: FAA reviewing SpaceX’s ‘Super Heavy’ proposal

A view of Starship SN8 at the SpaceX South Texas Launch Site as the SN8 and SpaceX crew plan a 15-kilometer altitude (9.3 miles) test flight and landing Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The Federal Aviation Administration announced it is in the early stages of an environmental review of SpaceX’s proposal to launch Starship/Super Heavy rocket prototypes at the company’s Boca Chica production/launch complex.

The FAA conducted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and issued a Record of Decision in 2014, approving the site for up to 12 commercial launches a year using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. That was before the company conceived the more powerful Super Heavy booster rocket that it wants to launch from Boca Chica.

As SpaceX’s plans for the site and the kind of rocket it would be building at Boca Chica have changed, the FAA has prepared a number of written reevaluations and addendums from 2014 through this year concluding that the 2014 EIS remained “current and substantially valid.” The company began its Boca Chica Starship development program last year, successfully test flying three single-engine prototypes to 500 feet since late August 2019.

SpaceX is preparing for a possible launch to 50,000 feet of the three-engine Starship SN8 prototype this week. It would be the first full-sized version to fly fully assembled with nosecone attached. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk gives the test flight a one-in-three chance of succeeding.

Now that the company wants to put an immensely powerful, 230-foot-tall Super Heavy booster under the 165-foot-tall Starship spacecraft and launch them together into orbital flight from Boca Chica, the FAA has decided a subsequent environmental review is warranted.

A view of Starship SN8 at the SpaceX South Texas Launch Site as the SN8 and SpaceX crew plan a 15-kilometer altitude (9.3 miles) test flight and landing Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“SpaceX has informed the FAA that it plans to apply for licenses for suborbital and orbital launches of the Starship/Super Heavy at the Boca Chica Launch Site,” according to the agency. “To receive the licenses, SpaceX must complete a safety review and develop agreements for the license application in addition to the environmental review.”

As part of the review, the company is working with the FAA to prepare a draft Environmental Assessment, which is not as comprehensive as the full-blown EIS but potentially could lead to one, depending on what the EA reveals. The FAA said the EA will give the agency the information it needs to figure out the correct course of action.

The options include preparation of an EIS if it is determined the Starship/Super Heavy program would cause significant environmental impact, a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), or issuance of a Mitigated FONSI calling for mitigation measures to blunt the environmental impact, whatever it may be. The FAA said it may choose a course of action at any time during the EA process, or once SpaceX presents its draft EA for the agency’s approval.

The FAA says it will announce “opportunities for stakeholder engagement,” including participation in the environmental review and licensing process, as they become available. The agency said it is in the process of developing a public outreach and scoping plan for the environmental process and plans to provide that information to the public this week.

SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, Calif., was founded in 2002. A ceremonial groundbreaking for the Boca Chica site took place in 2014. The company began concentrating the bulk of Starship development program in Cameron County last year.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com