Elon Musk’s Starship rocket has an enormous potential to revolutionise space travel, but at what cost for the environment? An impact assessment of orbital Starship launches from SpaceX’s South Texas Starbase facilities has been postponed for the second time.
1. US government agencies delay review
Starbase’s Programmatic environmental Assessment (PEA) won’t take place before 28 March 2022, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The first environmental assessment was supposed to take place between 21 December 2021 and 28 February 2022, but a number of US government agencies have been behind the repeatedly delays that SpaceX’s Starbase has been suffering, according to Teslarati.
Based on information retrieved from a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), the US Departments of Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) and National Parks Services (NPS) are responsible for the delays and disagreement in finalising Starbase’s PEA. As of the end of October 2021, the NPS had a list of at least 31 comments on SpaceX’s Starbase draft PEA, each of which would have required a detailed response and additional back-and-forth to refine each response.
2. Specific concerns
Overall, the FAA’s evaluation of a permit or license application includes a review of public safety issues, such as overflight of populated areas and payload contents, national security or foreign policy concerns, insurance requirements for the launch operator, and potential environmental impact.
In a general review, the Department of the Interior (DOI), on behalf of the FWS and NPS, raised specific concerns about launch site blast area hazards, closure of FWS and NPS lands, environmental justice concerns, endangered species, air quality emissions and climate change impacts.
“I completely agree that the vast majority of resources should be dedicated to solving problems on Earth. More than 99% of our resources should be focused on terrestrial challenges but maybe half a percent should be space-focused,” said Musk during a pitch he gave for building Starship.
3. Securing approval from DOI, FWS and NPS
Ultimately, SpaceX will need and the FAA will need the support from the DOI, FWS, and NPS in order to finish the Starbase PEA. In case no agreement is reached, SpaceX may be forced to effectively restart the environmental review process from scratch and pursue a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). However, completing an EIS could take years, potentially forcing SpaceX to pick a new facility and give up on South Texas as a site for regular orbital Starship launches.