FAA again delays completion of Starship environmental review

By Jeff Foust,
Published by SpaceNews, 26 March 2022

SpaceX showed off a completed Starship/Super Heavy vehicle in February, but that vehicle now appears unlikely to perform the first orbital launch attempt once the FAA awards a license to the company. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration has again delayed completion of an environmental assessment for orbital launches of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle from Texas, although it may have no effect on near-term launch plans.

The FAA announced March 25 that it had pushed back the expected completion of the final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of Starship/Super Heavy orbital launches from Boca Chica, Texas, by another month. The assessment, previously targeted from completion March 28, is now targeted for release April 29.

This is the third delay in the completion of the assessment, which was originally scheduled for release at the end of December 2021. The FAA delayed the release first to Feb. 28, then to March 28, citing ongoing work to complete the assessment and coordinate with other government agencies.

“The FAA is currently reviewing the Final PEA and completing consultation and coordination with agencies at the local, State, and Federal level,” the FAA said in a statement about the latest delay.

According to a federal government permitting timetable, the major elements awaiting completion for the environmental assessment are an Endangered Species Act consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service and consultations with agencies on an element of the National Historic Preservation Act called a Section 106 Review.

While the environmental delays are frustrating for advocates of the company, it’s not clear that they are actually delaying launch activity by SpaceX. The environmental review is required for SpaceX to receive an FAA launch license for Starship orbital flights.

At a Feb. 10 event in Boca Chica, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk spoke with a completed Starship/Super Heavy vehicle standing behind him on the pad. He said then that the company was “a couple months” away from a first launch based on both FAA licensing and technical work.

However, it now appears likely that the vehicle that appeared on the pad will not be the one to make the first orbital launch attempt. Activity at SpaceX’s Starbase site in Boca Chica suggests that a different Super Heavy booster and Starship vehicle will be used for the first orbital flight, but only after extensive ground testing.

A potential contributing factor is a shift in SpaceX resources. Musk tweeted March 5 that SpaceX had “reprioritized” resources to cybersecurity to address jamming of Starlink signals in Ukraine. “Will cause slight delays in Starship & Starlink V2,” he wrote, without elaborating.

Musk, at the February event, suggested that Starship test launches could shift from Boca Chica to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida if there are extensive delays in getting a license for a launch from Boca Chica. SpaceX is working on both a launch pad for Starship at Launch Complex 39A as well as production facilities elsewhere at the center.

“I guess our worst-case scenario is that we would be delayed for six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there,” he said then.

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