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FAA gives qualified nod to SpaceX plans in final environmental assessment

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After months of delays, the US FAA on Monday issued its final decision in an environmental assessment of a SpaceX proposal to launch the corporate’s massive, reusable Starship vehicle from a Boca Chica, Texas location SpaceX calls “starbase.”

The ultimate verdict? The trail is usually clear for SpaceX to launch Starship on orbital test flights from Texas, provided the corporate addresses 75 needed environmental impact mitigation actions spelled out by the FAA. The actions include steps to minimise noise and protect air and water quality, amongst others.

SpaceX responded to the FAA decision with a transient but optimistic post on Twitter:

The mirror-like, chrome steel skinned Starship is a big, reusable spacecraft SpaceX hopes won’t only replace its current fleet of Dragon spacecraft and land Nasa astronauts on the moon in 2025, but can be key to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk’s plans to construct a city on Mars. Stacked atop the SpaceX Super Heavy Booster, Starship is the biggest, strongest rocket ever built.

SpaceX began developing Starship in 2017, and has since flown various iterations of the spacecraft as much as 10,000 feet above Starbase, as allowed under its current FAA licence. But to conduct a test flight of Starship and the Super Heavy Booster that truly sees the combined launch vehicle reach orbit, SpaceX must acquire an FAA launch licence.

Before granting a launch licence, the FAA conducted a programmatic environmental assessment of SpaceX’s plans for Starship operations in Texas. Starting the assessment in November 2020, the regulator initially planned to make a final decision in December 2021, but pushed back the announcement 4 times.

The FAA could have denied SpaceX a launch licence based on expected environmental impact, could have required the corporate to undergo a more lengthy environmental impact statement process or could have granted a launch licence immediately.

However the FAA’s decision announced on Monday was a “mitigated finding of no significant impact” or FONSI, meaning the FAA won’t give SpaceX a launch licence until the corporate takes mitigation efforts. Those efforts vary widely, from requiring the corporate to not schedule launches on certain holidays, to spraying water to maintain down the production of dust, to obtaining stormwater discharge permits from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

In its decision, the FAA noted that SpaceX had scaled back its original plans for Starship operations at Starbase, including cancelling plans to construct a natural gas processing facility and a seawater desalination plant.

While legal challenges to SpaceX operations are still possible, the FAA decision clears the biggest hurdle to SpaceX conducting a long-planned orbital flight test for Starship that can see the spacecraft launch from Texas and splash down within the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

SpaceX can be not the one organisation waiting on a Starship test flight to prove the vehicle is spaceworthy. In April 2021, Nasa awarded SpaceX a $2.9bn contract to develop a specialised version of Starship that can carry Nasa astronauts to the surface of the moon as a part of the Artemis III mission planned for 2025.

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