The FAA has delivered its verdict: the Starship will be able to take off from Boca Chica… provided it meets the agency’s 75 environmental requirements.
Finally ! After years of hard work, SpaceX has just passed the most important milestone on its near-term roadmap; Elon Musk’s company has just obtained the official green light from the Federal Aviation Administration to proceed with the launches of the Starship, its immense space vehicle which must notably be used for the conquest of Mars.
It was one of the last regulatory hurdles SpaceX had yet to clear to officially launch operations for this metal behemoth. Indeed, the federal authorities were worried about the ecological impact of this pharaonic project; they had therefore launched a major environmental audit. SpaceX was prohibited from flying its machine before it brought clear conclusions.
A “no significant impact” in ecological terms
It is now done; after more than six months of suspense, the federal agency announced on June 13 that the deliberations had led to a Finding of No Significant Impact (“discovery of absence of significant impact”), or FONSI. In the billionaire’s camp, this decision was obviously greeted with big smiles. “One step closer to the first orbital test of the Starship“, tweeted the firm, relaying the press release from the FAA.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 13, 2022
In essence, this means that the FAA considered that the launch of the Starships did not present any particular environmental risk… provided that certain arrangements were made.
Indeed, the FAA did not give Elon Musk carte blanche all along the line. The report has one major flaw. To be able to launch its Starships, SpaceX will have to comply with a very dense environmental monitoring protocol. It includes no less than 75 different measures, some of which will have to be carried out at each launch to manage the environmental impact as best as possible.
Heavy environmental specifications
FONSI stipulates that SpaceX will have to make changes to the Starbase infrastructure. In particular, it will have to modify its lighting system, deemed too aggressive for nocturnal animals in Texas. A “qualified biologist” will also be in charge of monitoring the impact of the Starbase on the local fauna and flora.
On-site transport will also have to be redesigned with the establishment of shuttles. This will avoid the incessant back and forth of many individual cars on the site. SpaceX will also have to protect the access road as well as a nearby beach and monitor access very strictly.
Despite these measures, many environmental groups have expressed disappointment with the decision. “We hope that the SpaceX team will see that life on Earth deserves more consideration and that they will do their best to minimize the impact of the Boca Chica site.”, explains Mike Parr, president of a bird conservation association quoted by Spacenews.com.
Two final administrative hurdles
Still, that doesn’t mean SpaceX can launch its Starship just yet. He now has two final administrative steps. Initially, it will have to follow to the letter all the environmental measures required by the agency. Once the latter has confirmed compliance with these instructions, all that remains is to pack everything up by signing the official Starship flight license once and for all.
It is this document which will finally give him the right to leave for orbit. At this time, neither the FAA nor SpaceX have communicated on these timelines. But unlike the FAA’s verdict, which remained uncertain, this is only a matter of time. This process will certainly take several weeks, even a few months. A delay far from being catastrophic. Because despite Musk’s compulsive haste, several important tests still have to be carried out before the big day.
SpaceX has a date with history
Finally, there is another remarkable point hidden in the FONSI text. It is indeed specified that SpaceX is only authorized to carry out five Starship launches per year. A figure that we imagine disappointing for Musk, who for a time expected a much more sustained pace.
We remember, for example, the episode of the Raptor engine crisis at the end of last year. In a catastrophic email addressed to his employees, Musk explained that the firm was heading for “disaster” if it failed to launch a Starship at least every… two weeks. However, in this specific case, SpaceX could not even launch one every two months.
The risk of bankruptcy should be put into perspective, and the setbacks of the Raptor engine finally seem to be over; but this inconsistency proves once again that we must remain very careful as soon as the sulphurous billionaire alludes to his roadmap. It will therefore be advisable to wait wisely rather than speculating on the date of obtaining the final flight license.
But one thing is certain: the inauguration of the Starship – and by extension the opening of a new chapter in aerospace – has never been closer. The titanic work carried out by SpaceX for 20 years all converged towards this same outcome which is now beginning to become clearer. Suffice to say that we should not miss his great debut for anything in the world.