After years of development, SpaceX Starship came to life for its first major launch. But before the 164-foot rocket can take off into space, the company, led by Elon Musk, must go through some recent regulatory hurdles.
The launch will take place in Boca Chica, located in the southernmost part of Texas and surrounded by state parks and a wildlife sanctuary. The nature of his work has raised concerns about potential harm to wildlife species, especially endangered coastal birds, in the region. SpaceX also bought dozens of people’s homes to relocate them and forced other residents to evacuate during tests.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently finalizing a final environmental assessment of the site and was expected to make a decision on May 31. However, the agency postponed the deadline for the sixth time and is now expected to finalize the review on June 13. He said SpaceX has made a number of changes to its application that require further analysis by the FAA.
Last month, the FAA released 17,000 comments, some of which raised concerns about the impact of the SpaceX project on endangered species and the nearby National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley. The company has submitted permits to develop an additional 17.6 acres of wetland to the existing Starbase facility – the size of the entire affected area is likely to be much larger. Boca Chica is one of the most important coastal bird sites along the Gulf Coast, said David Newstead, director of the Coastal Blanket and Mouth Program (CBBEP) in South Texas. It also serves as a critical spot on the Central Summer Road, which connects migratory birds between North and South America.
“There have been several explosions [at the testing site]”Many of them have spread debris in the surrounding wildlife sanctuary and habitat in the state park,” said Newstead. “And SpaceX’s properties are in close proximity to busy, heavily used, important coastal bird habitats.”
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CBBEP monitoring efforts show that in Boca Chica, reed birds – a federally endangered coastal bird species – have declined from an approximate population of 327 in 2018 to 214 in 2020. But the population registered a slight increase to 276 in 2021. These changes correlate with starting and stopping tests to launch the site, says Newstead. SpaceX first began production and local testing of its Starship rocket systems in 2018.
“It simply came to our notice then [in piping plovers] last winter, but have not recovered to the level they were before, “added Newstead. “In particular, from August 2021 to April 2022 there were no more start-up tests.”
In addition to tracking pipeline populations, CBBEP also monitors nesting snow buzzards and Wilson buzzards in Boca Chica. These birds have disappeared mostly from the area and appear to be avoiding nesting in places close to the launch site, Newstead said.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has also determined that SpaceX’s ongoing activities in Boca Chica will affect animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Among those of greatest concern are red coastal birds and wild jaguarundi and ocelot cats. Marine life is also in danger, including Camp Ridley’s sea turtle, which nests on the beaches of Boca Chica and is the most critically endangered sea turtle in the world.
SpaceX’s launch site could endanger wildlife populations by causing direct injury or death through explosions and tests. The USFWS and other entities also noted that the heat, pressure and debris from launch tests, which began in 2018, could harm species or drive them away from critical habitats. But the assessment of SpaceX’s impact on the environment is ultimately in the hands of the FAA.
“I am optimistic that we will receive approval [from the FAA]”Musk said this February, according to Spaceflight News. “Objectively, I think this is not something that will be harmful to the environment. We obviously flew [Starship spacecraft] several times … We started the engines a lot. I think the reality is that there will be no significant impact. “
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SpaceX is shooting for a launch in 2023 on its Starship spacecraft, which is designed to travel to the moon and Mars. If the FAA decides to request a new environmental statement from the company, it will lead to a delay of six to eight months, Musk said earlier this year. In that case, SpaceX plans to transfer its Starship launch operation to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the company has already received the necessary environmental approval.
Newsted says that while it is not uncommon for regulatory agencies to delay their decisions, the number of FAA delays surrounding the SpaceX project stands out.
“I guess the degree of delay is evidence of the number of obstacles the agency faces in authorizing this activity,” he said. “If it was of good quality, [SpaceX] they would have their permission long ago. “