Elon Musk and SpaceX have nearly finished construction of the largest rocket prototype ever built, and just one obstacle stands between them and the tests that could eventually send people to Mars: a federal environmental review of the plans for the South Texas wildlife refuge that houses the launch site.
The company cannot legally test the rocket (called the Starship) or its booster (the Super Heavy) until the federal government gives the OK on a new environmental impact assessment, conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration. Musk has a long history of ignoring rules like this one — the FAA has already told SpaceX that one tower newly-constructed at the facility already violates the terms of the environmental review — but actually launching the rocket and its booster would be an extremely serious and unprecedented violation of federal law. The FAA has refused to comment to Protocol or elsewhere on the timing of the environmental review, which closed its public comment period in January 2021.
If the environmental researchers and activists who work in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge have any sway over the process, those rocket tests will not be happening anytime soon. The 90,000 acre wildlife refuge is an exceptionally rare habitat for a variety of birds, sea turtles and other animals and plants that inhabit the lagoon ecosystem at the southernmost tip of Texas, and researchers say that testing and explosions over the last year have already caused incalculable damage to the ecosystem. Many of those researchers provided concerns to the FAA during the public comment period and continue to advocate publicly against the project. (SpaceX is reshaping more than just the wildlife refuge — the people of the surrounding county and nearby city of Brownsville have found themselves caught up in the company's push to create a space port town Musk is calling "Starbase.")
When SpaceX first announced its plans to build a facility on Boca Chica beach in Cameron County in 2014, the environmental approvals from the FAA were based on the plan to launch a limited number of Falcon rockets. But then, at some point in 2018, without consulting local government leaders, SpaceX quietly switched course. Instead of launching its Falcon rockets, the company decided to use the South Texas facility for a longer-term project to build both the Starship and the Super Heavy booster that Musk hopes will one day serve as the main transport vehicle for people to live on Mars. Getting people to live on Mars entails years (and likely even decades) of rocket prototypes and launch tests, and likely more explosions over the wildlife refuge. All of those rockets require new fuel, energy and water supplies. And until 2020, the FAA allowed construction and testing for this new plan to go ahead without a new environmental impact assessment.
When Musk announced the change in plan from Falcon rockets to Starship 2018, no serious environmental reassessment was done. In 2019, the FAA then issued a written re-evaluation to its original approval, saying it believed the Starship tests would meet the same environmental criteria as the previous approval. Only in late 2020 did the FAA announce that it would begin a new environmental review of the Starship and Super Heavy plans, all while SpaceX charged ahead with its Starship testing and spaceport construction. When the FAA asked for public comments to shape the new research, a flood of critiques from researchers and locals over the habitat and natural environment flooded in.
Conservation biologist Stephanie Bilodeau, who works for the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, spends long days walking the beach and flats along the road, searching for red knot and plover nests. "At first glance, it looks like a big, desolate area. It doesn't look like much to anybody," she said. "But tidal flats and coastal prairie, the water is wind-driven, you can't find an area like this. I don't even know how to describe how amazing this place is for birds."
Because the birds nest on the ground, their future in the refuge will likely depend on how much SpaceX expands in the area and the size of future rocket tests. The prototype Starship uses three engines, but the final Super Heavy booster for the Starship rocket will one day use more than 30, which could mean far larger explosions than the one that savaged the beach in March. And SpaceX plans to grow far beyond just its rocket. The company wants to expand its solar farm and parking lots and build a natural gas pretreatment facility, a desalination plant and a power plant, in addition to more towers, support buildings and other assorted structures.
Bilodeau's nonprofit isn't the only group upset about the harm already caused by the project. The local Brownsville residents are worried about more than the wildlife refuge. SpaceX closes the road to the beach often and unexpectedly, infuriating them. Many see the beach as part of their Brownsville birthright; it's the place they tell everyone to visit, the place they grew up playing, the place where the Rio Grande opens into the Gulf of Mexico (Boca Chica means "little mouth.")
"It's still open to the public, but it doesn't feel like it," Bilodeau said. One local nonprofit, called Save RGV, says that the roads have been closed more than 380 hours so far just in 2021, a number far above the 300 hours of road closures the company has permission to use in all of 2021.
Aside from the FAA's ongoing environmental review, there are no real pathways for local residents and wildlife researchers to address their concerns about the environment impact. Musk has tweeted that the rocket assembly process for the Starship continues to move ahead, and it remains unclear what he or SpaceX will do if the Starship is ready for launch before the FAA finishes its review.