SpaceX Could Delay Starship Orbital Test Due to FAA’s Environmental Concerns

As part of SpaceX’s continuing up-and-down relationship with regulators, the company could be forced to delay its planned orbital test of a Starship rocket prototype. The FAA has expressed concern about the test’s potential impact on local wildlife.

Debris from the past, fiery losses of four Starship prototypes in a row has rained down on local beaches, which could explain why SpaceX has closed local beaches and public roads often enough to attract unwanted attention from Cameron County officials. SpaceX has blamed what the county officials say are excessive road closures on overzealous security guards.

Now that SpaceX has finally nailed the landing with a high-altitude test flight of the 16-foot-tall SN15 prototype, it feels more confident in testing a bigger, 23-story-tall Super Heavy booster, which will be capable of sending Starship into orbit.

The FAA may be concerned that a failure during launch of the orbital test could have an impact on local wildlife and ecosystems. An exploding rocket could send debris for miles and create a shockwave strong enough to shatter windows in nearby residential buildings.

Due to this, the FAA is requiring that SpaceX conduct an environmental study to ensure that the risk to local ecosystems will be minimized. The regulatory agency will have to sign off on it but is unlikely to do so before SpaceX’s target launch date of early July. Some experts say that a new environmental statement is likely to take as long as three years, which could punt Elon Musk’s goal of sending uncrewed Starship spacecraft to Mars in 2024 and crewed missions in 2026 even further into the future.

Musk and his companies have frequently criticized regulators for decisions that Musk doesn’t agree with and bureaucratic red tape that causes delays for his plans. Tesla has been forced to delay the opening of Gigafactory Berlin from July to as early as late 2021 due to the snail pace of getting regulatory approval, for instance. Musk has also said that the FAA’s space division “has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure” in the wake of the FAA’s investigation into the string of explosions of Starship prototypes.

More recently, though, FAA Associate Administrator Wayne Monteith did tell Congress that SpaceX seems to take safety concerns more seriously in the wake of the string of Starship prototype losses that started with the loss of SN8 in December 2020. A House of Representatives subcommittee had been holding a hearing on how the FAA could improve support for the growing demand for space launches.

Now SpaceX simply needs to address the environmental concerns that must have been so frequently annoying for Elon Musk lately. Part of the bureaucratic delays with Gigafactory Berlin could be due to recent legal challenges from environmental groups. Local law authorities are investigating a suspected case of arson that damaged power lines leading to Gigafactory Berlin in which an extreme environmentalist group claimed responsibility. It would not be at all surprising if some of Elon Musk’s annoyance with them spills over to his response to the FAA’s environmental concerns that could lead to a delay in the Starship orbital test that is expected to launch from Boca Chica and come down somewhere near Hawaii.