SpaceX’s Loud, Dangerous Starship Tests in Texas Worry Environmental Regulators

SpaceX conducts a static-fire test of its Starship SN5 prototype on July 30, 2020 at the company’s Boca Chica facility in South Texas. Elon Musk/Twitter

SpaceX’s aggressive plan to test fly its Mars-colonizing spaceship, Starship, in the remote beach town of Boca Chica in South Texas is worrying environmental regulators.

In a new set of documents released by the Federal Aviation Association on Monday, the federal agency cited concerns raised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department about SpaceX’s incessant and dangerous work in Boca Chica.

Critics were particularly worried about SpaceX’s excessive road closures to Boca Chica Beach, around-the-clock construction work that may disturb nocturnal species and potential prototype explosions, which have caused sprawling wildfires in the past.

SpaceX privately owns the launch and development site in Boca Chica. The company has been using the site primarily for testing Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets since 2014. However, as those two rockets enter commercial service, SpaceX in recent years has been gradually adjusting the Boca Chica site for its next big project, Starship.

A lot of the changes involved in this process require FAA approval. For example, SpaceX has requested permission to build a new launch mount and an extra test pad for Starship. The latter would be built in case the primary pad is damaged during a test failure, as happened with the SN4 prototype during a static-fire test in May. The company is also waiting for the agency’s green light to launch the first suborbital test of Startship.

On Monday, the FAA released three recent documents as part of its ongoing Starship evaluation, as first reported by Business Insider. Overall, the agency is supportive of SpaceX’s expansion of Starship tests in Boca Chica, since the spacecraft falls within the scope of “reusable suborbital launch vehicles” laid out in SpaceX’s original plan when purchasing the site.

The FAA also assured state and federal environmental agencies that there will be “no significant environmental changes, and that all pertinent conditions and requirements of the prior approval have been met or will be met” by SpaceX.

And yet, because Starship is significantly larger and heavier than either Falcon 9 rockets, SpaceX has to draft a new environmental assessment and revise the construction plan of its beachside launch pad before conducting any suborbital Starship tests.

To date, SpaceX has tested eight Starship prototypes. Earlier this month, an SN8 prototype completed a static-fire test in Boca Chica. Its next goal is to fly up to 50,000 feet (9.3 miles) above sea level and ultimately reach Earth’s orbit.

To keep the public informed throughout the Starship project, the FAA has launched a community engagement portal specifically for SpaceX. The portal includes a link to sign up to receive notifications on public meetings and review and information to comment on relevant documents as they become available. SpaceX’s Loud, Dangerous Starship Tests in Texas Worry Environmental Regulators