Elon Musk may be forced to take down a SpaceX Starship tower because of an FAA environmental review

The FAA learned of the tower’s construction ‘based on publicly available video footage’ and says SpaceX is building ‘at its own risk’

Adam Smith
Thursday 15 July 2021 16:09 BST
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Elon Musk’s space company SpaceX may be forced to take down a tower at its Boca Chica launch site because an environmental review of the structure has not been completed by the The United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

An FAA spokesman said on Wednesday that the agency’s environmental review underway of SpaceX’s proposed rocket assembly “integration tower” is “underway,” and added that “the company is building the tower at its own risk.”

A May 6 letter from the FAA to SpaceX seen by Reuters said recent construction activity on one of the two proposed towers “may complicate the ongoing environmental review process for the Starship/Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Program.” The FAA letter said the tower could be as high as 480 feet.

Based on the environmental review, the FAA could order SpaceX to take down the tower. “It is possible that changes would have to be made at the launch site, including to the integration towers to mitigate significant impacts,” the May 6 letter said, adding the FAA learned of the tower’s construction “based on publicly available video footage.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment but Musk has repeatedly criticized the FAA and the U.S. regulatory system.

SpaceX told the FAA in May that it did not believe the review was necessary because it only intends to use the “integration tower for production, research, and development purposes and not for FAA-licensed or -permitted launches,” the FAA said.

But the agency said description in documents “indicates otherwise.” The FAA cited a SpaceX document that the towers would be used to integrate the Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle. “Super Heavy would be mated to the launch mount, followed by Starship mated to Super Heavy,” the FAA letter said quoting SpaceX‘s 5 May submission.

The FAA and Musk have clashed on several occasions. On June 29, Musk lamented the delay of the launch of Transporter-2 mission in Florida. He tweeted “an aircraft entered the keep out zones, which is unreasonably gigantic. There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform.” Earlier this year, the FAA said SpaceX‘s December launch of Starship SN8 violated its license requirements. Effective March 12, the FAA began requiring an agency safety inspector at all SpaceX launches to “ensure compliance with federal regulations to protect public safety.

”FAA Administrator Steve Dickson spoke with Musk on March 12 for 30 minutes to stress ‘’the FAA’s role in protecting public safety by ensuring regulatory compliance. He made it clear that the FAA expected SpaceX to develop and foster a robust safety culture that stresses adherence to FAA rules,” the agency said in April.

Despite this conflict, the FAA has defended SpaceX despite the company’s unauthorised launch of a Starship prototype in December, ignoring the warnings from a safety inspector.

During a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, representative Peter DeFazio asked FAA associate administrator Wayne Monteith what SpaceX has “done to deal with the operational concerns” and “cultural issues’’ after the unauthorised launch of the SN8 Starship.

“We would not have cleared them to start flight operations again had I not been confident they had modified their procedures effectively and addressed the safety culture issues that we saw,” he said.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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