Draft Environmental Assessment Recommends Starship/Super Heavy Launches From Boca Chica

Super Heavy/Starship system in flight. (Credit: SpaceX)

The draft document, available for download as a PDF here, says the FAA’s proposed action “is to issue one or more experimental permits and/or a vehicle operator license to SpaceX that would allow SpaceX to launch, which can include landing, Starship/Super Heavy. SpaceX’s goal is to use Starship/Super Heavy for low Earth orbit, sun-synchronous orbit, geostationary transfer orbit, and interplanetary missions for cargo and humans.”

“Some infrastructure required to conduct Starship/Super Heavy launches and associated tests was already built to support the Starship prototype test operations,” the document said. “The FAA determined the environmental impacts of this construction were not significantly different from those analyzed in the 2014 EIS and therefore did not complete a supplemental NEPA analysis.”

The FAA plans to hold virtual public hearings on Oct. 6 and 7 as part of the 30-day public comment period that ends on Oct. 18, 2021.

I’ve excerpted parts of the document summarizing the proposed action below. When I get some time I’ll go through the document and post some more details about SpaceX’s plans for Boca Chica.

Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment for the SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Program at the SpaceX Boca Chica Launch Site in Cameron County, Texas
September 2021

Selected Excerpts

Description of Proposed Action and Alternatives

Proposed Federal Action

The FAA’s Proposed Action is to issue one or more experimental permits and/or a vehicle operator license to SpaceX that would allow SpaceX to launch, which can include landing, Starship/Super Heavy. SpaceX’s goal is to use Starship/Super Heavy for low Earth orbit, sun-synchronous orbit, geostationary transfer orbit, and interplanetary missions for cargo and humans.

The environmental analysis in this PEA focuses on the Boca Chica Launch Site, including potential additional development at the site as explained below. The FAA may conduct environmental reviews of additional proposed launch and reentry sites if SpaceX further develops proposals. Such reviews may be tiered off this PEA as appropriate.

SpaceX’s proposed Starship/Super Heavy program consist of testing operations (suborbital launches) and orbital launches. If SpaceX becomes more successful with test flights, the Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle program would increase orbital launches and perform fewer testing operations.

Annual proposed launch operations include suborbital launches (see Section 2.1.3.3) and/or orbital launches (see Section 2.1.3.4). SpaceX’s proposal also includes launch-related activities at the Boca Chica Launch Site, such as tank tests, static fire engine tests, expansion of the VLA and solar farm, and construction of additional infrastructure.

All elements of the Proposed Action and SpaceX’s proposal are identified in Table 2-1. Detailed
information about some of the launch-related infrastructure (e.g., exact location and design) is not currently available. Therefore, the draft PEA makes assumptions about these unknowns using best available information and professional expertise. The analysis in this draft PEA reflects the environmental impacts that may be expected to result from the Proposed Action and the assumptions. If SpaceX proposes modifications to the activities discussed below, and they fall outside the footprint of the proposed project or the scope of this environmental review, the FAA would conduct additional environmental analysis.

Credit: FAA

Some infrastructure required to conduct Starship/Super Heavy launches and associated tests was already built to support the Starship prototype test operations. The FAA determined the environmental impacts of this construction were not significantly different from those analyzed in the 2014 EIS and therefore did not complete a supplemental NEPA analysis. The following subsections provide a description of the proposed project’s location, the launch vehicle, proposed operations, and proposed construction.

2.1.1 Location

The Boca Chica Launch Site is located on SpaceX-owned land in Cameron County, Texas, near the cities of Brownsville and South Padre Island. The launch site consists of the VLA, which is controlled by the launch and landing control center (LLCC). The VLA is approximately 2.2 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border and the LLCC is approximately 1.3 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border (Figure 2-1). The launch site is in a sparsely populated coastal area adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico, characterized by unvegetated tidal flats, shallow open water, low sand dunes, and salt flats (refer to Section 3.10.3.1 for more detailed information). State Highway (SH) 4, which provides the only access to the public Boca Chica Beach (Figure 2-2) and to TPWD’s Boca Chica Tract, provides access to the launch site and terminates directly adjacent to the VLA. The LLCC consists of a two-story building (referred to as Stargate) and is located west of the VLA along SH 4, adjacent to the SpaceX manufacturing and production area. The LLCC is approximately 0.7 acres in size.