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FAA warns SpaceX that massive Starship launch tower in Texas is unapproved

CNBC logo CNBC 7/14/2021 Michael Sheetz
  • The Federal Aviation Administration has warned Elon Musk's SpaceX that work on a massive launch tower will be included in the agency's ongoing environmental review of the Starship facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
  • "The company is building the tower at its own risk," an FAA spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday, noting that the environmental review could recommend taking down the launch tower.
a jet in the grass: Two Starships now stand inside the SpaceX build site in Boca Chica, Texas, July 13th, 2021. © Provided by CNBC Two Starships now stand inside the SpaceX build site in Boca Chica, Texas, July 13th, 2021.

The Federal Aviation Administration warned Elon Musk's SpaceX in a letter two months ago that the company's work on a launch tower for future Starship rocket launches is yet unapproved, and will be included in the agency's ongoing environmental review of the facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

"The company is building the tower at its own risk," an FAA spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday, noting that the environmental review could recommend taking down the launch tower.

The FAA last year began an environmental review of SpaceX's Starship development facility, as Musk's company said it planned to apply for licenses to launch the next-generation rocket prototypes from Boca Chica. While the FAA completed an environmental assessment of the area in 2014, that review was specific to SpaceX's much-smaller Falcon series of rockets.

SpaceX has conducted multiple short test flights of Starship prototypes over the past year. However, the company needs the FAA to complete the environmental review and issue a license to take the next step in the rocket's testing. Company leadership has set ambitious goals for the Starship program, with President Gwynne Shotwell last month saying SpaceX is "shooting for July" to launch the first orbital spaceflight of its Starship rocket.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment on the FAA letter.

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The company in May revealed its plan for the flight, which would launch from the company's facility in Texas and aim to splash down off the coast of Hawaii.

Starship prototypes stand at about 160 feet tall, or around the size of a 16-story building, and are built of stainless steel – representing the early version of the rocket that Musk unveiled in 2019. The rocket initially launches on a "Super Heavy" booster, which makes up the bottom half of the rocket and stands about 230 feet tall. Together, Starship and Super Heavy will be nearly 400 feet tall when stacked for the launch.

SpaceX is developing Starship to launch cargo and people on missions to the moon and Mars.

Defining the launch tower

The FAA's letter on May 6 came in response to SpaceX saying in a prior letter that the launch tower in Boca Chica should not be a part of the environmental review because the company "only intends to use the integration tower for production, research, and development purposes and not for FAA-licensed or -permitted launches."

"However, SpaceX's project description in the administrative draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment provided to the FAA on May 5, 2021 indicates otherwise," FAA safety authorization division manager Daniel Murray wrote in response.

The FAA further emphasized that the "480-foot-tall integration tower is substantially taller than the water tower and lightning towers assessed in the 2014" environmental review.

Musk earlier this month shared photos of work SpaceX had done on both a Super Heavy booster and the launch tower.

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