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FAA intends to issue final decision in SpaceX environmental review in June

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The FAA is poised to announce a final decision within the regulatory agency’s environmental assessment of plans by SpaceX to launch the corporate’s newest and largest rocket, referred to as Starship, from the SpaceX “Starbase” facility in Texas.

The FAA will announce its decision within the Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy project on 13 June after reviewing around 18,000 public comments since launching the assessment in November 2020, in line with a Tuesday media release.

Starship is a big, reusable spacecraft designed to take large payloads and crews of as much as 100 in all places from orbit to the Moon to Mars. Stacked atop the Super Heavy Booster, the combined launch vehicle is 395 feet tall.

The FAA must approve the PEA before the agency can issue SpaceX a launch license for the Starship spacecraft, though because the FAA noted in the discharge, “The completion of the PEA is not going to guarantee that the FAA will issue a launch license.”

There’s no guarantee the FAA will actually announce its final decisions on 13 June either.

The FAA originally expected to make an announcement in December 2021, but then pushed the date back to twenty-eight February. The agency has pushed the date 4 times since, from 28 February to twenty-eight March, then to 29 April, and on April 29, delayed the choice over again until 31 May.

But while past statements by the FAA regarding the date it could announce its decision used language corresponding to, “the FAA is working toward issuing the ultimate Programmatic Environmental Assessment,” Tuesday’s statement said the FAA “intends to issue” its decision on 13 June.

SpaceX has a somewhat troubled history with regulators. The corporate rubbed the FAA the fallacious way with an unauthorised low-altitude flight test of the Starship spacecraft in December 2020, and in 2021 the agency warned the corporate that construction of a tower at Starbase in Boca Chica could “complicate the continuing environmental review process for the Starship/Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Program.”

The US Army Corp of Engineers, meanwhile, closed a separate environmental assessment in May after SpaceX failed to supply information the corps requested following the corporate’s request for a permit to expand the Starbase facility in Texas. The US Army Corps of Engineers regulates wetlands and waterways within the US under federal law, and the SpaceX plans could have impacted nearby wetlands.

The Starship spacecraft paired with the Super Heavy Booster shall be essentially the most powerful rocket ever launched — if and when it launches. While SpaceX has conducted flight tests of Starship prototypes as much as 10,000 feet in altitude, the corporate has yet to launch the spacecraft into orbit atop the Super Heavy Booster.

It’s not clear what SpaceX will do if the FAA doesn’t approve the PEA and grant SpaceX a launch license. Prior to now, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has suggested the corporate could launch the Starship spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, where the corporate launches its Crew and Cargo Dragon spacecraft atop Falcon 9 rockets.

The clock for SpaceX, and Nasa, is ticking, nevertheless.

Nasa awarded SpaceX a contract to supply a variant of Starship to be used because the lunar lander for the Artemis III mission to return humans to the Moon in 2025. The SpaceX concept requires not only a Starship redesigned to land on the Moon, but one other “tanker” version of Starship that can make multiple launches to fuel up the lunar lander in orbit across the Earth — an unprecedented procedure.

Meanwhile, no Starship has yet flown to space.

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