SpaceX can launch a giant new rocket to orbit from South Texas, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday.
An environmental review by the agency has concluded that SpaceX’s plans for orbital launches will have “no significant impact” on the region along the Gulf Coast near Brownsville. But the FAA is also requiring the company to undertake more than 75 actions to minimize the impact on the surrounding areas as it begins flights of Starship, a vehicle central to NASA’s plans to return to the moon as well as the vision of SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk to colonize Mars.
The actions Musk’s company must take include earlier notice of launches, monitoring of vegetation and wildlife by a biologist, coordination with state and federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats, and adjustment of lighting to lessen impact on wildlife and a nearby beach.
The mitigation measures required by the FAA also restrict closures of a highway that passes the SpaceX site during launches so that people can visit the nearby beach, park and wildlife refuge. The agency said the highway could not be closed on 18 holidays and not on more than five weekends a year.
The decision means that a more comprehensive environmental review, which could have added months or years to the project, is not needed. However, the regulatory move could face other legal challenges, and SpaceX still needs to obtain a license from the FAA for launches.
SpaceX’s site is in a tiny village called Boca Chica.
There, for several years, SpaceX has been working on Starship, a stainless-steel behemoth that would be the most powerful rocket ever. Together with a booster stage, it will stand nearly 400 feet high, taller than the Statue of Liberty and its pedestal.
It will also, unlike any previous orbital rocket, be entirely reusable.
The Boca Chica site offers several factors that make it a favorable place to launch rockets to orbit. Except for the bottom of the Florida Peninsula, it is as far south as one can get on the contiguous United States. For many missions, a launchpad closer to the equator aids the trip to orbit by adding the speed of Earth’s rotation to the rocket’s velocity.
The launch path passes over water, away from populated areas, minimizing risk to people on the ground.
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