The FAA completes a key environmental assessment for Elon Musk's Mars rocket and requests dozens of changes to the original launch plans.
SpaceX has cleared a major hurdle toward sending its Starship to space, but it has a list of changes to make before Elon Musk's Mars rocket can fly.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday said it's completed an environmental assessment of the company's plan to send the next-generation vehicle to orbit for the first time. After months of review, thousands of public comments submitted and multiple delays, the FAA revealed that the assessment returned a "mitigated" finding of no significant impact, aka FONSI. It requires the company to take over 75 actions to mitigate the environmental impact of Starship and Super Heavy rocket launches from SpaceX's Starbase development facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
Simply put, the federal government isn't going to require a more lengthy and detailed environmental review for Starship. It's giving a tentative green light for the regulatory path toward blastoff, so long as SpaceX makes several dozen required changes to its original plan.
Required modifications include more advance notice of planned launches to reduce closures that affect highway, beach and state park access.
"Closures will not be allowed on 18 identified holidays, and weekend restrictions are limited to no more than five weekends per year, ensuring robust access to the refuge and park throughout the calendar year," the FAA said. "The FAA will also require real-time notifications when access restrictions begin, end or are canceled."
Other requirements for SpaceX include "ongoing monitoring of vegetation and wildlife by a qualified biologist; coordinating with state or federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats; [and] adjusting lighting at the launch complex to minimize impact on wildlife and the nearby beach."
The company responded briefly on Twitter: "One step closer to the first orbital flight test of Starship."
Additional hurdles remain before the FAA will officially issue a launch license for Starship, but this milestone represents clearing the biggest bureaucratic obstacle for SpaceX.
"The environmental review is one part of the FAA Launch Operator License application process," the FAA said in a statement to reporters. "SpaceX also must meet FAA safety, risk, and financial responsibility requirements before a license is issued for any launch activities.
The 40-page document laying out the required changes includes detailed requests such as: "SpaceX will continue to offer enhanced satellite monitoring via solar-powered Starlink to the Peregrine Fund for continuous video coverage of northern aplomado falcon habitat to aid in biological monitoring." The raptors are an endangered species.
A statement released by environmental groups the Center for Biological Diversity, the Surfrider Foundation and Defenders of Wildlife said Monday that the review and required actions don't go far enough.
"The mitigation measures that SpaceX is proposing are absolutely inadequate and won't save Boca Chica's incredibly important migratory bird habitat," said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The FAA has a legal obligation to take a hard look at the environmental harms of this expansion."
The environmental review was originally scheduled for completion by Dec. 31, 2021, but was delayed several times while the FAA worked with SpaceX, concerned parties who submitted public comments and other government agencies to come up with the list of mitigations.
It's possible that the result announced Monday could be challenged in court. Meanwhile, SpaceX will continue to proceed toward a first launch that now seems at least plausible in the coming weeks.