US Federal Aviation Administration issues draft assessment of SpaceX Super Heavy impact

The environmental impact, not the smoking crater made by an impact


SpaceX took another step towards launching the orbital version of its Starship last week with the release of a Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (DPEA) from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The document, which is up for public comment until October, is not a permit for Elon Musk to launch whatever he likes, but rather an assessment prior to issuing licences. The report also looks at the potential environmental impacts of SpaceX's plans for its Boca Chica site in Texas.

SpaceX has an existing licence for the development and firing of Starship prototypes. However, its Super Heavy rocket plans require a fresh environmental review (as well a safety review) before a licence can be issued.

Buried in the draft assessment for the company's Boca Chica site are figures to set SpaceX fans hearts' aquiver. There could be up to 20 Starship suborbital launches per year during development and as many as five Starship/Super Heavy orbital launches. A maximum of five Super Heavy landings are also on the cards. A higher cadence would likely require a reassessment.

The Starship/Super Heavy stack is quite a beast – the FAA puts it at "approximately 400 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter" (approx. 121.9m in height/9.144m in diameter). Cut-off for the Super Heavy stage is expected to occur at the 40-mile mark (64.37km), at which point Starship's engines would fire the spacecraft to the desired orbit. The Super Heavy stage is planned to conduct a burn to return it to the landing site – be it a floating platform or land (or be dumped in the sea for expendable missions).

The lengthy draft assessment [PDF] did not include too much that would alarm SpaceX. Noise and the potential for pollution were documented and SpaceX provided an estimate of 300 hours for the time it would take to deal with the impact of "anomalies."

The FAA also noted it was dependant on consultation with other agencies, such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, with regard to endangered species or "species of concern."

The next step will be to get input from the public before the FAA can finalise its assessment, with licences for Starship and Super Heavy orbital launches hopefully following. SpaceX boss Musk issued a plea to his followers to "add your voice to the public comments" on the Boca Chica plans.

After all, it would be unfortunate if the impressive Starship and Super Heavy stack remained mere Texas ornamentation. ®

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