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The FAA Weighs the SpaceX Launch Site's Environmental Effects

On a foggy day in March, a prototype of SpaceX’s giant silver rocket known as Starship, dubbed Serial Number 11 or SN11, was supposed to reorient itself vertically while landing and deftly touch down on a pad at the company’s launch site near Boca Chica, Texas, a couple miles from the Mexico border. But as it descended, it abruptly exploded, raining debris from the sky. In an industry that goes by the old chestnut “Space is hard,” failures come with the territory. (“At least the crater is in the right place!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted.) Some of SN11’s predecessors have met the same fate , and others have blown up on the launchpad, never making it off the ground. In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration assessed and approved SpaceX’s Boca Chica site for launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, but the company has dramatically expanded its plans for the site since then. The company is now in the process of upgrading its infrastructure to support launches of the much bigger combination of its Starship capsule and Super Heavy rocket booster.But not everyone who lives nearby is happy about the prospect of a larger site footprint and more massive launches. “Accidents and explosions are, unfortunately, just part of the testing procedure. We are concerned that they may create terrible destruction and debris landing on wildlife refuges and on the beach and wetlands,” says Bill Berg, a board member of a local environmental group, Save RGV, referring to the Rio Grande Valley.With SpaceX’s Starship plans expanding beyond the scope of the FAA’s 2014 environmental review, the agency is now conducting another one. In September, the FAA posted a draft report assessing the risks of Starship’s tests and construction to local ecosystems, as well as the effects on the community from things like road closures. This week its officials are hosting two virtual public hearings, and the agency is also inviting public comment through November 1.“SpaceX cannot launch the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle until the FAA completes its licensing process, which includes the ongoing environmental review and other safety and financial responsibility requirements. SpaceX would not receive a license if it cannot meet FAA safety regulations,” an agency spokesperson wrote in a statement to WIRED. In other words, the Starship won’t get off the ground if it doesn’t get a passing grade.SpaceX representatives did not respond to WIRED’s interview requests.SpaceX refers to the combination of the Super Heavy booster rocket and the Starship spacecraft riding on top simply as “Starship.” Along with NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, Starship will be one of the most massive rockets ever built. It’s almost 400 feet high, can be equipped with up to 37 of SpaceX’s Raptor engines (compared to current prototype tests with just three engines), and it will be able to blast 220,000 pounds of cargo into orbit. NASA plans to deploy Starships (as well as SLS and Orion) on upcoming missions to the moon as part of the Artemis program. In a couple of decades, they could bring some of the first astronauts to Mars. But a lot of tests have to be done first, and the FAA wants to ensure they’re done safely.