FAA intends to issue final decision in SpaceX environmental review in June

More than a year in the making, the FAA’s decision could change or affirm all of Elon Musk’s biggest plans

SpaceX successfully lands Starship prototype rocket

The FAA is poised to announce a final decision in the regulatory agency’s environmental assessment of plans by SpaceX to launch the company’s newest and largest rocket, known as Starship, from the SpaceX “Starbase” facility in Texas.

The FAA will announce its decision in the Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy project on 13 June after reviewing around 18,000 public comments since launching the assessment in November 2020, according to a Tuesday media release.

Starship is a large, reusable spacecraft designed to take large payloads and crews of up to 100 everywhere from orbit to the Moon to Mars. Stacked atop the Super Heavy Booster, the combined launch vehicle is 395 feet tall.

The FAA must approve the PEA before the agency can issue SpaceX a launch license for the Starship spacecraft, though as the FAA noted in the release, “The completion of the PEA will not guarantee that the FAA will issue a launch license.”

There’s no guarantee the FAA will actually announce its final decisions on 13 June either.

The FAA originally expected to make an announcement in December 2021, but then pushed the date back to 28 February. The agency has pushed the date four times since, from 28 February to 28 March, then to 29 April, and on April 29, delayed the decision once more until 31 May.

But while past statements by the FAA regarding the date it would announce its decision used language such as, “the FAA is working toward issuing the final Programmatic Environmental Assessment,” Tuesday’s statement said the FAA “intends to issue” its decision on 13 June.

SpaceX has a somewhat troubled history with regulators. The company rubbed the FAA the wrong way with an unauthorised low-altitude flight test of the Starship spacecraft in December 2020, and in 2021 the agency warned the company that construction of a tower at Starbase in Boca Chica could “complicate the ongoing environmental review process for the Starship/Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Program.”

The US Army Corp of Engineers, meanwhile, closed a separate environmental assessment in May after SpaceX failed to provide information the corps requested following the company’s request for a permit to expand the Starbase facility in Texas. The US Army Corps of Engineers regulates wetlands and waterways in the US under federal law, and the SpaceX plans could have impacted nearby wetlands.

The Starship spacecraft paired with the Super Heavy Booster will be the most powerful rocket ever launched — if and when it launches. While SpaceX has conducted flight tests of Starship prototypes up to 10,000 feet in altitude, the company has yet to launch the spacecraft into orbit atop the Super Heavy Booster.

It’s not clear what SpaceX will do if the FAA does not approve the PEA and grant SpaceX a launch license. In the past, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has suggested the company could launch the Starship spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, where the company launches its Crew and Cargo Dragon spacecraft atop Falcon 9 rockets.

The clock for SpaceX, and Nasa, is ticking, however.

Nasa awarded SpaceX a contract to provide a variant of Starship for use as the lunar lander for the Artemis III mission to return humans to the Moon in 2025. The SpaceX concept requires not only a Starship redesigned to land on the Moon, but another “tanker” version of Starship that will make multiple launches to fuel up the lunar lander in orbit around the Earth — an unprecedented procedure.

Meanwhile, no Starship has yet flown to space.

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