McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Federal Aviation Administration has pushed back by another month the release of an environmental review on SpaceX, which is developing its Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle with hopes of one-day launching from South Texas to Mars.
On Monday, the FAA announced the agency’s final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) on the project — and how it is affecting the environment around Boca Chica Beach — will not be released until March 28. The report had been slated for release on Feb. 28.
But the delay came as no surprise after SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk visited the Rio Grande Valley last week and told a crowd that he expected to receive agency approval in March.
“We don’t have clear insight into the FAA,” Musk said. “We have gotten a rough indication that there maybe an approval in March.”
Musk made a rare public appearance on Thursday night beneath a prototype of the massive Starship rocket system where he spoke before hundreds for over an hour to explain the company’s mission and reason for building a launchpad in South Texas, just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.
He called the Starship the “holy grail breakthrough” and said its development would give the world “a rapid and completely reusable rocket system,” capable of carrying passengers and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars and beyond.
“Why are we doing this? Pretty epic. What’s the sort of deep meaning behind this? Why build a giant reusable rocket? Why make life multi-planetary. Well, I think this is just an incredibly important thing for the future of life itself,” Musk said to a cheering crowd.
But he admitted that despite over 100 tests of the boosters, they have a lot of work to do to get the 164-foot-tall rocket with 33 raptor engines and capable of hauling 100 tons into space and fully operational.
“I’m incredibly proud of the SpaceX team and all the support we’ve received from Cameron County, from Brownsville, from South Padre,” Musk said from the launch site he has dubbed “Starbase in Texas,” which is less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico.
Musk said they chose this relatively isolated location because it is one of the southernmost points in the United States to test what would be the largest flying object of its kind.
Musk said there were “confluence factors” that this location offers that aid in getting Starship into orbit.
He said that includes launching eastward to get “help from the Earth’s rotation.” And he said “the closer to the Earth’s equator, the more of a boost.” And they needed a “good clear area” that’s relatively unpopulated.
“It’s basically here and Cape Canaveral or Cape Kennedy” in Florida, he said.
But not everyone is convinced.
Environmentalists in the Rio Grande Valley are concerned that the region is suffering irreversible damage from so many rocket tests and launches, some of which have resulted in fiery explosions.
But FAA officials have told Border Report that “SpaceX cannot launch the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle until the FAA completes its licensing process, which includes the ongoing environmental review and other safety and financial responsibility requirements.”
The nonprofit organization Save RGV last year asked the FAA to provide more oversight on this project and to give locals more data and information on the risks to border communities and wildlife from ongoing rocket tests.
“SpaceX really wanting to launch their Starship/Super Heavy so they’re clearly putting some pressure on the FAA to give them the OK,” Jim Chapman of Save RGV told Border Report back in September when the agency published its Draft PEA.
After that draft came out Sept. 17, the FAA received over 19,000 comments, which the agency on Monday promised would be posted on its project website Feb. 18.
But Chapman and others say the FAA has been controlled by the powerfully popular SpaceX and the federal agency allowed the private space company to decide the type of environmental assessment that it would conduct. Usually, the federal government decides the type of environmental review necessary and many feel a more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement is needed with such a huge project as this.
Dinah Bear, who for decades was the general counsel of the Council on Environmental Quality, the agency that oversees the National Environmental Protection Act, said she’s never heard of a private company being able to call the shots as SpaceX has.
“In 25 years of overseeing NEPA throughout the federal government, I have to say that I never heard any agency say that before!” she told Border Report recently.
In a Nov. 1 letter she submitted, as part of the public commenting period, Bear urged stricter oversight.
“I write to express concern with important elements of the FAA’s process for implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) proposal to decide whether to approve SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Program at the SpaceX Boca Chica Launch Site in Cameron County, Texas. In particular, I am concerned that the FAA demonstrates too much deference for the applicant in the NEPA process. Further, the potential effects from this proposed action require that the FAA should commence preparation of an environmental impact statement,” she wrote.
Endangered sea turtles nest just yards from the launch pad on the sand dunes of Boca Chica Beach. And the sex of the reptiles is determined by the temperature the eggs experience. So many environmentalists fear that the extreme heat from launches will skew the turtles to birth only one sex type and that could lead to further extinction of the species in upcoming years.
Last week, a nonprofit organization filed a complaint with the USDA against Neuralink, a company founded by Musk, accusing it of violating the federal Animal Welfare Act related to “invasive and deadly brain experiments conducted on 23 monkeys.”
On Monday, The Hill reported that NASA is raising concerns that the Starlink satellite project, a Musk pet project, will create over-crowded highways in space that could lead to collisions between objects in low-Earth orbit.
Musk said Thursday that this year his company plans 50 test launches. “That’s a launch per week on average so we have a heavy year ahead of us,” he said.
However, if the FAA finds the test launches “significantly affect” the environment, the agency can order a much more detailed assessment and that could take years to complete and that would delay his plans to soon carry humans to Mars.
Musk says his company intends to one day carry animals to other planets, as well.
“It is very important, essential over the long-term that we become a multi-planet species and eventually go beyond the solar system,” Musk said Thursday. “We are life’s guardians. The creatures we love can’t build space shifts, but we can, and we can take them with us.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.