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FAA will allow SpaceX to launch Starship from Texas, but with a catch

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/13/2022 Christian Davenport
Starship prototypes at the SpaceX South Texas launch site. © Veronica Cardenas/Reuters Starship prototypes at the SpaceX South Texas launch site.

The Federal Aviation Administration is allowing SpaceX to proceed toward launching its massive Starship rocket from its private spaceport in South Texas, while requiring the company to take dozens of actions aimed at protecting the surrounding environment.

After months of review and study, the FAA on Monday issued a “mitigated finding of no significant impact,” a decision that allows Elon Musk’s company to proceed toward its first orbital launch attempt of its massive rocket. But the FAA imposed more than 75 actions that the company must undertake to protect the environment and reduce the impact of its activities on a nearby public beach and wildlife preserve before being given a launch license.

In a tweet, SpaceX said the decision put it “one step closer to the first orbital test of Starship.”

For months, SpaceX and NASA have been awaiting the decision to see when the rocket would be able to attempt a launch to orbit. SpaceX has been working to get it off the ground, and NASA last year gave the company a nearly $3 billion contract to develop Starship so that it could land astronauts on the moon. NASA’s last Apollo moon landing was in 1972.

Environmentalists have feared the massive rocket would disrupt the area’s fragile ecosystem.

Last year, SpaceX launched a series of prototypes of the spacecraft, which also serves as the vehicle’s upper stage, in test flights to an altitude of about six miles. Since the spacecraft is designed to be fully reusable, SpaceX was testing whether it could land as well as how it would fly, and several of the tests ended in crash landings that touched off huge fireballs and spewed debris across the area.

Video: SpaceX Launches 59 Smaller Spacecraft (Bloomberg)

Local residents have also complained that when SpaceX conducts tests it gets permission to close a road to a nearby public beach.

Earlier this month, the Sierra Club joined a lawsuit against state and local authorities for closing the beach “so frequently that [Rio Grande Valley] residents have seen their access essentially disappear.”

But others have welcomed SpaceX, saying it is helping lift the economy of one of the poorest communities in the country and giving it the cachet of a modern Cape Canaveral.

“It is extremely exciting that the testing, the research and development continues to go forward literally on a daily basis,” Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino told The Washington Post last year. “I think it’s a learning and growing experience for all of us. We’re getting used to having SpaceX in our backyard, and we’re trying to support them.”

Musk has said Starship is the “holy grail” of spaceflight, a system that would be fully reusable, refueled in orbit and that the company says could lift 100 metric tons to low Earth orbit, or dozens of people in the version designed to fly crew. The fully stacked vehicle — the Starship spacecraft atop a massive Super Heavy booster — stands 394 feet tall, taller than the Space Launch System NASA is developing. And both the booster and the spacecraft would be able to land back on Earth so that they could fly again, unlike traditional rockets, which dump their first stages into the ocean.

Starship is a key component of NASA’s Artemis mission to return astronauts to the moon. The Orion spacecraft, launched atop the SLS rocket, would fly the astronauts to the moon. There, in lunar orbit, it would rendezvous with Starship. The astronauts would move from Orion to Starship, which would take them to the surface of the moon and then back to Orion once the mission is completed. Orion would then fly back to Earth.

NASA officials recently visited Texas to check SpaceX’s progress and appeared to be pleased.

“On my recent visit to @SpaceX in Boca Chica, Texas, I had the chance to view the Super Heavy Booster, slated to make its first orbital test flight later this year, and the engines that will be used on Starship, the human landing system for #Artemis III,” Mark Kirasich, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for the Artemis campaign development division, wrote on Twitter Saturday.

Before that can happen, however, the FAA says SpaceX needs to meet multiple requirements, such as the “ongoing monitoring of vegetation and wildlife by a qualified biologist,” notify nearby communities about “potential engine noise and sonic booms,” work with state and federal agencies “to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats,” and adjust the lighting at its facilities to minimize the impact on the beach.

The FAA said that closures of the lone road to the public beach will not be allowed during 18 holidays throughout the year, and that weekend closures would be limited to five weekends per year.


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