What SpaceX’s final Starbase permits could mean for Texas wildlife
After years of development, SpaceX Starship has begun to roar to life in preparation for its first major launch. But before the 164-foot-tall rocket can lift off into space, the company, headed by Elon Musk, has to make it through some final regulatory hurdles.
The launch will take place at Boca Chica ,, which is located at the southernmost tip in Texas and is surrounded by state parks. There are concerns about the potential damage to wildlife species in the area due to SpaceX’s operations. SpaceX has also bought out dozens of people’s homes to make them relocate, and caused other residents to evacuate during tests.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently completing a final environmental assessment of the site and was expected to reach a decision on May 31. However, the agency pushed back the deadline for a sixth time and is now expected to finalize the review on June 13. It said SpaceX had made multiple changes to its application that required additional FAA analysis.
Last month, the FAA released 17,000 comments, some of which raise concerns about the SpaceX project’s impact on endangered species and the nearby Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The company filed permits to develop an additional 17.6 acres of wetlands next to its existing Starbase facility–the size of the entire affected area will likely be much larger. Boca Chica is one of the most important shorebird sites along the entire Gulf Coast, says David Newstead, director of the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program‘s (CBBEP) Coastal Bird Program in South Texas. It is also a crucial site on the Central Flyway that connects migratory birds between North America and South America.
“There have been multiple explosions [at the testing site], many which have spread debris into surrounding wildlife refuges and state parks habitat,” Newstead states. “And the SpaceX properties are immediately adjacent to occupied, heavily used, important shorebird habitat.”
The CBBEP’s monitoring efforts show that in Boca Chica, piping plovers–a federally threatened shorebird species–declined from an estimated population of 327 in 2018 to 214 in 2020. But the population recorded a slight uptick to 276 in 2021. Newstead states that these changes correspond with the beginning and end of launch testing at the site. SpaceX first started manufacturing and locally testing its Starship rocket systems in 2018.
” There was a slight increase [in piping plovers] in the past winter, but they have not recovered to their previous levels,” Newstead states. “Notably, from August 2021 until April 2022, there’s been no more launch testing.”
In addition to tracking piping plover population, the CBBEP also monitors nesting Wilson’s and snowy plovers at Boca Chica. Newstead states that these birds have mostly disappeared from the area, and they seem to avoid nesting near the launch site.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has also determined that SpaceX’s continued activity in Boca Chica will impact animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Among those of the greatest concern are red knot shorebirds and the jaguarundi and ocelot wild cats. The Kemp’s Ridley sea Turtle, which nests at Boca Chica, is also in danger. It is the most critically endangered sea turtle in the world.
SpaceX launches could cause direct injury or death to wildlife populations through tests and explosions. USFWS and other entities have also noted that heat, pressure, and debris from launch testing that began in 2018 could harm species or drive them away from critical habitat. The FAA will ultimately make the final decision on SpaceX’s impact on the environment.
“I am optimistic that we will get approval [from the FAA],” Musk said this February, as reported by Spaceflight News. “Objectively, I don’t think this will be harmful to our environment. We’ve flown the [Starship spacecraft] many times. We’ve also fired the engines quite a bit. I think the reality is that it would not have a significant impact.”
SpaceX is shooting for a 2023 launch of its Starship spacecraft, which is designed for voyages to the moon and Mars. Musk stated earlier this year that if the FAA requires a new environmental impact report from the company, it will cause a setback of six- to eight months. SpaceX will shift its Starship launch operations to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral (Florida), where it has received the environmental approval that it needs.
Newstead states that although it is not unusual for regulatory agencies to delay decisions, the number FAA postponements surrounding the SpaceX project stands out.
“I assume that the delay is a testimony of the many stumbling blocks that the agency is facing when authorizing this type activity.” he said. “If it were benign, [SpaceX] would’ve had their permit a long while ago .”