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SpaceX ready for Starship orbital test flight next month

Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas in 2021. On Monday, June 13, 2022, the FAA issued its final Programmatic Environmental Assessment, moving the project one step closer to final licensing. Image via SpaceX.

FAA’s environmental assessment out at last!

The Federal Aviation Administration said on Monday (June 13, 2022) it has determined SpaceX’s plan to build, test and launch its Starship heavy lift vehicle from the Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas will “not result in significant environmental consequences” to surrounding sensitive wetlands and the wildlife living in it. That’s provided the company takes adequate action to mitigate negative effects.

Starship is an immense rocket, standing nearly as tall as a 30-story building. It’s intended to carry people and equipment beyond Earth orbit to destinations including the moon and Mars. It has been pegged by NASA as the main support vehicle for the Artemis mission that will return astronauts to the lunar surface.

Musk says Starship can fly next month

While SpaceX’s official response has been muted, company founder and CEO Elon Musk said via Twitter Starship will be ready for an orbital test flight in July. The notoriously chatty Musk was responding to one of his many follower on his favorite social media platform.

The top man at SpaceX didn’t stop there. He said SpaceX will have another vehicle ready to fly the following month.

Still no license to fly Starship … yet

The FAA’s finding does not guarantee the agency will issue a license for SpaceX to operate in Texas, but it does give the company a clear and relatively simple path to approval. That means that while there is no set date for Starship’s first orbital flight, an inaugural liftoff could come before summer’s end, especially in light of Musk’s follow-up announcements.

SpaceX’s Starbase is located in Boca Chica, Texas – near Brownsville – on the Gulf of Mexico.

The decision SpaceX had hoped for

The decision was the outcome the private space transportation company had hoped for. After months of delays, the FAA at last published the final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA). The environmental document was accompanied by a Mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact/Record of Decision (Mitigated FONSI/ROD), both of which were made public by the FAA on Monday, June 13, 2022.

In order to get the FAA’s final nod to begin launches, SpaceX will have to perform a list of 75 actions intended to minimize the impact that manufacturing and flying their oversize lift vehicle will have on the environment, nearby historical landmarks and public access to surrounding recreational areas. The FAA’s announcement makes it clear the agency will be watching:

Should any future license or permit be issued to SpaceX to perform any aspect of the Proposed Action, the FAA will ensure that SpaceX implements these mitigation measures as conditions for licensure.

Starbase comes with big responsibilities for SpaceX

The FAA was very thorough in its examination of the possible fallout of SpaceX’s proposal, and the PEA lists areas of major concern:

The environmental impact categories assessed in this EA include air quality; climate; noise and noise-compatible land use; visual effects; cultural resources; Department of Transportation (DOT) Act, Section 4(f); water resources; biological resources; coastal resources; land use; hazardous materials, solid waste, and pollution prevention; natural resources and energy supply; and socioeconomics, environmental justice, and children’s environmental health and safety risks.

While the PEA found SpaceX’s activities will be disruptive, the FAA says the company can minimize the impact it will have using preventive measures to minimize expected negative effects. The company must also compile detailed plans for responding to any launch “anomalies,” the FAA’s polite term for spacecraft crashes and fuel explosions that may take place during testing.

SpaceX still has work to do

Even with those mitigating measures and plans in place, the FAA will still require SpaceX to prove it can pay for any damage it might do. According to an executive summary of the PEA, SpaceX must carry a heavy-duty insurance policy before launches can start at Starbase:

Per FAA regulations and the Commercial Space Launch Act, SpaceX is required to carry insurance to cover claims by third parties that result from licensed activities, including any structural damage. The FAA requires that SpaceX carry insurance in the amount of the “Maximum Probable Loss,” which is determined on a launch-by-launch basis by the FAA and is up to $500,000,000 per launch.

No date set for Starship orbital test flight

So far, SpaceX has made no substantial statement regarding the publication of the PEA. The company acknowledged the FAA’s action in a simple but optimistic message on Twitter immediately following the PEA’s release:

Starship’s 1st test flight

The Starship configuration that will likely make the first test flight – a stack of Starship 24 atop Booster 7 – is still being fine-tuned. But the stack is very close to being flight-ready. On Friday, June 10, 2022, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk shared a picture of Booster 7 with its Raptor engines in place.

The PEA and the mitigated finding of no significant impact mark a positive landmark in SpaceX’s pathway to getting Starship off the ground, one that has seen significant delays.

A Starship prototype dangles from a crane as it is mated with a booster at the SpaceX Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

Bottom line: On Monday, June 13, 2022, the FAA issued its final Programmatic Environmental Assessment for the SpaceX Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, moving the site one step closer to final licensing and moving the Starship project closer to its inaugural flight, hopefully this summer.

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