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FAA delays SpaceX's environmental review for South Texas launch of Starship

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SAN ANTONIO — The Federal Aviation Administration is again forcing Elon Musk to cool his jets.

Last month, the SpaceX founder said the company likely would launch the Starship vehicle into orbit for the first time from South Texas in May. He doubled down last week, telling CNBC via tweet that SpaceX would “have 39 flightworthy engines built by next month, then another month to integrate, so hopefully May for orbital test.”

For Musk, launching the Starship into orbit is a step toward carrying NASA astronauts to the moon — and eventually realizing his dream of colonizing Mars.

To get going, SpaceX needs FAA approval after an environmental review of its Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket program at the commercial space company’s Starbase compound in Boca Chica, near Brownsville.

If it gets the FAA’s go-ahead, Musk’s 20-year-old SpaceX will seek a federal operators license — also from the FAA — to fly the 400-foot-tall vehicle into orbit from Starbase.

But the agency said Friday that it would push the date to complete its environmental review from March 28 to April 29 — marking its third delay since closing out a public comment period in November.

The FAA, which is still reading through 19,000 comments, said it again postponed the decision “to account for further comment review and ongoing interagency consultations.” It also noted that approving the review doesn’t guarantee the company would get a license.

To determine whether SpaceX would receive an operators license, the agency would weigh public safety, national security issues and possibly the environmental effects of a Starship launch.

In February, the billionaire — who’s also CEO of electric vehicle maker Tesla — told a crowd of SpaceX employees, fans and reporters at Starbase that if the FAA made the company wait again, he’d likely move the Starship orbital launch to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. There, the company already has approval for a Starship takeoff.

“Our worst-case scenario is that we would be delayed for six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Musk will now move the Starship launch to Florida.

Either way, he told the Starbase crowd that he was “highly confident” his company would send the Starship into orbit by year’s end.

South Texas presence

In 2014, Musk chose to build Starbase in Boca Chica because it’s close to the equator and allows for an eastbound launch — important factors in trying to get “help from Earth’s rotation” when launching a rocket into orbit, he said at the Starbase presentation in February.

Also, SpaceX needed “a good, clear area — several miles around the launch site — to be unpopulated, or at least clearable,” he said. “That doesn’t actually leave a lot of options. It’s basically here or Cape Canaveral.”

The privately held company also operates a rocket engine testing facility in McGregor, near Waco. In addition, Tesla — Musk’s other major concern — moved its headquarters from California to Austin late last year.

SpaceX received federal approval in 2014 to launch its Falcon 9 rocket from Starbase. But since then, the company has used the location to build out its Starship program, which it promotes as having the world’s most powerful rocket. It also would be reusable.

SpaceX has launched a series of Starship prototypes from the South Texas site since September 2019. The test flights flew to an altitude of 6 miles before belly-flopping and dropping down through the atmosphere to attempt to land vertically.

After a series of failures, including an explosion that rained chunks of metal across marshlands near the space port, the company had its first successful launch and landing in May.

SpaceX also runs nonflight launch tests — noisy events that have rattled nearby residents, who face evacuations and highway closures on test days.

While some neighbors support SpaceX, seeing it as an economic boost for the region, others are concerned about the company’s expansion in South Texas. They say the result has been the frequent closures of Texas 4 and Boca Chica Beach and damage to the area’s natural habitat.

SpaceX’s Starship plans triggered a new environmental review, largely because of the company’s related decisions to build a natural gas plant, a solar farm and parking lots at the site.

The FAA originally was scheduled to finish the review by Dec. 31. But the agency said in late December that it would delay its decision by two months.

On Feb. 28, the FAA pushed back the date by another month — and now, by one more month.

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