After months of review, the Federal Aviation Administration released a draft environmental report Friday for SpaceX's controversial plans to launch the new Starship rocket at its South Texas launch facility.
The report details how SpaceX can address environmental concerns about its facility in the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, meaning that the FAA will likely allow the company to obtain licenses to launch the largest rocket ever built.
Elon Musk and SpaceX have described the Cameron County, Texas, facility as a future "Starbase" which the company and its leader envision as a portal for interplanetary travel. The development of a rocket that could eventually carry people to the moon and Mars has divided the citizens and leaders of the area, known locally as Boca Chica Beach, who are both eager for economic investment in one of the poorest regions in the United States and afraid of the environmental and social consequences of testing a massive rocket in an exceptionally rare habitat. The FAA is the lead regulatory authority over the project, and this environmental review process is the only regulatory hurdle between the company and its ambitions for the area.
Before the draft report becomes a final proposal, the FAA will host two virtual community meetings in October. The final FAA product, called a Programmatic Environmental Assessment, will conclude one of three options: that the Starship testing and launches will have no significant impact, that SpaceX needs to take measures to address the impact, or that the project requires an additional and broader environmental assessment because of the potential for measurable negative effects.
The current draft, while it does not include the results of environmental assessments by Texas or federal wildlife officials, appears to indicate that SpaceX could sufficiently address environmental concerns in a way that will allow the testing and launches to proceed under federal law. The company will likely be required to hire a biologist to monitor wildlife during construction and testing, as well as other measures that could reduce the environmental effects of construction, testing and launches. The draft does not directly address the main fears from environmental groups that SpaceX is risking the habitat of endangered bird and invertebrate species, or the complaints of community groups that the company has failed to abide by its promises with regard to road closures and beach access.
"At first glance, it looks like a private company subsidized by millions in Texas taxpayer dollars is asking the public to sacrifice a National Wildlife Refuge," said David Newstead, director of the coastal bird program at the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, which monitors and researches wildlife activity around the facility.
The FAA said it would post instructions for joining the public hearings by Oct. 4.