SpaceX’s plans for a second launch of its Starship megarocket could face new delays, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) launches a review of environmental impacts and potential threats to endangered species in the Boca Chica region.
Starship’s launch on April 20 from Boca Chica, Texas, while achieving basic milestones for an inaugural flight, encountered several problems, including major damage at the launch mount and the scattering of debris across a wide area. After the launch, SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) jointly participated in an investigation, resulting in 63 corrective actions proposed for Elon Musk’s private space company. Among the upgrades is a new water deluge system designed to quell the immense power of Starship’s 33 Raptor engines.
However, before this latest addition and any other alterations can be put to the test, the FWS needs to conduct its own assessment. While SpaceX has, apparently, already moved forward with its corrective measures, the FWS has yet to review these upgrades, particularly the newly installed deluge system at the Starbase launch mount. An FWS email sent to Bloomberg claims that the review process could span anywhere from 30 to 135 days. Given SpaceX’s hopes of relaunching Starship next month, this development could significantly disrupt the company’s timelines.
Emphasizing the environmental concerns, Aubry Buzek, a public affairs specialist at the FWS, conveyed to Bloomberg in an email: “Once the Service reviews FAA’s final biological assessment and deems it complete, consultation will be re-initiated and we will have 135 days to issue a final biological assessment.” Buzek further clarified that, if additional information becomes necessary, the time frame can be extended upon mutual agreement between the FAA and the Service. Should the FWS utilize the full 135-day window, Starship’s launch will not take place this year (officials with FWS “have yet to begin a formal review of SpaceX’s upgrades,” according to Bloomberg).
The environmental scrutiny arises from the potential effects of SpaceX’s activities on sensitive local habitats hosting endangered species. The FAA has sought consultation with the FWS under the Endangered Species Act, as of August 11, aiming to evaluate the implications of SpaceX’s post-mishap modifications, the FWS told Bloomberg. Spraying water upwards into an advancing rocket may seem harmless, but the company needs to follow strict rules as it pertains to the discharging of industrial process wastewater, specifically rules mandated in the federal Clean Water Act.
As the FWS assessment looms, the FAA has yet to grant SpaceX the necessary approvals for its proposed second flight. If the FAA determines that its prior environmental assessment from 2022 is no longer valid due to modifications made for the upcoming flight, a more comprehensive review may be warranted, as the regulator explained in an emailed statement. And of course, the FAA needs to be happy with the recently executed corrective actions.
Needless to say, this could serve to delay the launch even further. In its statement, the FAA emphasized its commitment to ensuring all safety, environmental, and regulatory concerns are addressed before SpaceX is given clearance for another flight.
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