New FAA documents reveal SpaceX’s latest plans to launch Starship prototypes on suborbital flights in South Texas – and potential obstacles to orbit


An illustration of the SpaceX spacecraft and the Super Heavy rocket engine that launches into space together from Earth. SpaceX
  • SpaceX is building a facility in Boca Chicago, on the southeastern tip of Texas, to develop, build and launch fully reusable Starship-Super Heavy missiles.

  • The company is currently focusing on suborbital up and down prototype flights, but eventually plans to launch starships into orbit and return them to Texas in 2021.

  • However, SpaceX needs approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for significant deviations from the full site plan finalized in July 2014.

  • The FAA quietly released three new written reassessment documents Monday outlining SpaceX’s latest plans – one of which is also linked to documents marked by state and federal agencies.

  • The agency has also launched a new “community engagement portal” for the public to track and consider the SpaceX Starship-Super Heavy project.

  • Visit the Business Insider website for more news.

The Federal Aviation Administration has released a number of key documents and a new website related to the future of SpaceX in Boca Chicago, Texas.

The space company is moving vigorously on the ground to develop, build and launch a nearly 400-meter-high launch vehicle called Starship-Super Heavy. If the system – a steel spacecraft and rocket propulsion – is realized, as founder Elon Musk envisioned, it could reduce the cost of getting to low Earth orbit by about 1,000 times, revolutionize travel, send people to the moon, and perhaps help populate Mars.

But while SpaceX is a privately owned startup and development site in South Texas, the airline company, founded by Elon Musk, fell far short of the original plans.

In July 2014, the company conducted a years-long environmental impact assessment. The document described how SpaceX uses the site as a commercial spaceport to launch a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy missile roughly every month. Major deviations from the plan must be approved by the FAA.

These discrepancies most often come in the form of written revaluations. The FAA is not required to publish the documents, but the agency occasionally does so on the SpaceX project website.

On Monday night, the FAA released three new written revaluation documents that we embedded at the end of the story: November 2019 and June 2020 additions to the preliminary warehouse written revaluation, and a new revaluation from May 2020.

The agency also launched a new Starship-Super Heavy project website over the weekend to engage the public in a review of SpaceX’s plans to circulate vehicles from Boca Chica.

What the new FAA documents contain

spacex starship mars rocket prototype serial number 5 sn5 150 meter test launch flight raptor engine drone video boca chica village beach texas august 4, 2020 twitter elon musk EexYPnPU0AEqLUI
The SpaceX “SN5” starship rocket prototype will launch on August 4, 2020, approximately 150 meters (492 feet) above Boca Chica Beach, Texas. Elon Musk / SpaceX via Twitter

The documents detail SpaceX’s plan to fly Starship prototypes on suborbital, up and down flights from Boca Chica, as well as the environmental impacts these plans could have.

The FAA believes such activity is part of SpaceX’s original plans because the company said it could fly “a number of reusable suborbital launchers” from the site (although it did not specify how many vehicles they could be, how often, or even which fuel would be used).

The add-ons officially cover much of what is already known about the launch site and SpaceX’s plans. This information comes from previous FAA reassessment documents, aerial photos, SpaceX fans documenting the company’s progress and test launches, and Musk’s own statements.

For example, the November 2019 supplement reviews the 2-3 year suborbital test program for Starship flights approved in May 2019. The appendix prescribes a schedule of additional incremental test flights and additional Starship prototypes. It replaces the ambitious flight with 100 kilometers (62 miles) – which many see as the edge of space – up to 30 kilometers of flight. (However, these numbers have since deviated again to 20 kilometers [12.5 miles] in July and then as Musk tweeted in September to 15 kilometers [9.3 miles].)

The June 2020 add-on redefines SpaceX Starship’s test plans and calls for a review of the company’s beach launch location layout (below), which it calls the Vertical Launch Area.

spacex starship launch site Boca Chica Texas, May 2020, Written Revaluation Environmental Impact Statement wr eis drawing diagram Figure 1
SpaceX’s planned Starship launch site layout in Boca Chicago, Texas, from a written revaluation supplement signed by the FAA in June 2020. FAA

Specifically, SpaceX applied for permission to build a new starter assembly and an extra suborbital test bench – in case another Starship prototype exploded catastrophically and damaged the primary bench, as it did on May 29, 2020.

“This anomaly caused damage to the test bench, which stopped testing until the repairs were completed,” the addendum writes. “With a redundant test pad, SpaceX would be able to continue testing operations in parallel with repairing a damaged bench.”

The June 2020 supplement also provides a more detailed picture of how the environmental impact of SpaceX has changed since the abandonment of Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy missiles and Starship’s commitment.

One section describes its expected effects on nearby wetlands, the other deals with noise. Another estimate is that SpaceX’s suborbital test program is expected to generate global warming annually as the system burns methane (a greenhouse gas much stronger than carbon dioxide) with oxygen. The table combines prototype testing and suborbital “hop” launches to estimate nearly 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.

But the most important document of the lot is the written revaluation signed by the FAA on May 22nd. The file is 26 pages long and was necessary for SpaceX to receive its suborbital launch permit from the FAA on May 28 and includes state and federal state concerns. environmental agencies.

During the reassessment, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised several aspects of SpaceX’s plans and ongoing activities. These criticisms point to the “liquid nature” of the company’s construction projects, the excessive roadblocks in Boca Chica Beach (rewarded by Brownsville locals), the work done around the clock that could affect endangered or threatened species at night, prototype explosions and scattered fires. company.

The FAA responded to all the concerns in the document and finally concluded that “there are no significant environmental changes and that all relevant conditions and requirements for prior approval have been or will be met” with SpaceX’s suborbital test flight plans.

But Starship can’t get on the field yet

A Starship Launch Animation _ South Texas.  2019 10 08 12_40_42
Illustration of SpaceX’s planned 39-story Starship missile system starting in Boca Chicago, Texas. SpaceX / YouTube

However, SpaceX does not yet intend the FAA to launch starships into orbit around Boca Chica.

In its responses to concerns raised by other agencies, some of which require a new EIS, which could take years to implement (in Musk’s time for an eternity), the agency reiterated that it was working with SpaceX to develop those plans.

The agency has since announced that SpaceX is conducting an environmental assessment. This move could save SpaceX valuable time to gain FAA approval to get Starship to orbit – but only if the agency decides that such a program will not have an overly different impact from the plans set out in the original EIS from July 2014. If the effects are significant, SpaceX may face a new impact report.

“The FAA will continue to work with SpaceX to finalize the description of the planned operations,” an agency spokesman told Business Insider in September. “The agency has no expected date to complete this action.”

Over the weekend, however, the agency released the “SpaceX Starship Super Heavy Project” website to share information about the company’s career plans for Boca Chica, which it calls a “community engagement portal.”

“The portal will provide information about the project, documents relevant to the public, a link to subscribe to receive notifications of public meetings and reviews, and information for commenting on the documents as they become available,” the spokesman said earlier. (In fact, the site includes a form that receives email notifications of “public engagement options” for reviewing the project.)

SpaceX did not respond immediately to Business Insider’s comments. The FAA acknowledged the Business Insider’s questions, but was unable to comment on the disclosure in a timely manner. (We’ll update this story if and when we hear back.)

The three new FAA documents are embedded below.

Read the November 2019 supplement:

Read the June 2020 supplement:

Read the May 2020 written reassessment:

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