In the latest round of the tug of war between SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the FAA has warned SpaceX that work on a Starship rocket assembly tower has not been approved for environmental reasons. The tower is being constructed at the Boca Chica, Texas, launch test facility for development work on SpaceX’s interplanetary Starship rocket, which it plans to use for eventual journeys to the Moon and Mars.
SpaceX has said that orbital test flights for Starship could begin as early as this month, although it could be delayed due to ongoing wrangling with the FAA. Elon Musk has often expressed frustration with the regulatory agency, though the FAA’s Associate Administrator, Wayne Monteith, has recently expressed confidence that SpaceX has fixed the safety issues surrounding the losses of four Starship prototypes in a row during high-altitude test flights. SpaceX has made adjustments based on data from those test flights and successfully landed the SN15 prototype in one piece.
The FAA is still conducting an environmental review of the launch facility and says that SpaceX is building the assembly tower for Starship and the Super Heavy rocket that is designed to lift it into orbit “at its own risk.” The FAA requires that the environmental review be completed before SpaceX can conduct orbital test flights for the Starship / Super Heavy stack.
“It is possible that changes would have to be made at the launch site, including to the integration towers to mitigate significant impacts,” the FAA said in a letter to SpaceX.
SpaceX has responded that it doesn’t think the reviews are necessary since it intends to use the tower for “production, research, and development purposes and not for FAA-licensed or permitted launches.” The FAA has disputed this claim, saying that available documentation indicates that SpaceX plans to use the tower to integrate the Starship and Super Heavy.
SpaceX has recently faced scrutiny over its environmental impact not only from the FAA, but also from local environmental activists who complain that its operations at the Boca Chica facility have done damage to local wildlife and ecosystems. Worldwide, Elon Musk’s companies’ clashes with environmentalists include Tesla’s legal wrangling with German environmental groups over activities related to its construction of Gigafactory Berlin. It scored a victory in the most recent court case in which German environmentalists claim that they were only seeking “clarification” of provisional permits issued by the local government in whose jurisdiction Tesla is building the victory.
Elon Musk has frequently complained that the FAA’s is getting in the way of actual trips to Mars with its rigorous scrutiny over safety and environmental concerns. His ambitions for Starship includes providing transportation for the building of a significantly sized city on Mars by 2050. He has allowed that such a venture would be risky, though he has previously cracked that he wouldn’t mind dying on Mars, “just not on impact.”