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FAA Initiates Environmental Review for SpaceX's Starship Operations at KSC

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is initiating an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to assess the potential environmental impacts associated with granting SpaceX a Vehicle Operator License for its Starship-Super Heavy launch vehicle operations at Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Wed Jun 12 2024Written by Zac Aubert

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is initiating an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to assess the potential environmental impacts associated with granting SpaceX a Vehicle Operator License for its Starship-Super Heavy launch vehicle operations at historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida.

SpaceX’s Proposal Details

SpaceX's proposal includes the construction of launch, landing, and other associated infrastructure in and around historic LC-39A, with launches and landings of the Starship-Super Heavy vehicle planned both on land and at sea.

SpaceX’s ambitious plans at LC-39A include various scenarios for the Super Heavy booster and Starship landings:

  • Super Heavy Booster:

    • Landing at LC-39A

    • Landing downrange in the Atlantic Ocean on a droneship

    • Expendable landing in the Atlantic Ocean, at least 5 nautical miles from the coast

  • Starship:

    • Landing at LC-39A

    • Landing on a droneship

    • Expendable landing in the open ocean between 55 degrees south latitude and 55 degrees north latitude

SpaceX has already constructed some infrastructure at LC-39A but proposes additional enhancements to support the Starship-Super Heavy operations. These include a Super Heavy catch tower, facilities for propellant generation and storage, a cooling tower, an air separation unit, and a deluge system.

Background and Evolution of SpaceX’s Plans

In September 2019, NASA completed a Final Environmental Assessment (EA) for the SpaceX Starship and Super Heavy launch vehicle at KSC, concluding with a Finding of No Significant Impact.

Since then, SpaceX has developed infrastructure at LC-39A consistent with the 2019 EA. However, the concept of operations for Starship-Super Heavy has evolved, necessitating new infrastructure and an increased launch tempo. The updated proposal includes launching an advanced design of the vehicle and landing the Super Heavy booster at LC-39A to support its reusability.

Purpose and Need for the Proposed Action

The primary purpose of the proposed action is to facilitate SpaceX’s use of NASA assets and provide necessary services and commodities for Starship-Super Heavy launches. This aligns with NASA’s Commercial Space Launch Act, which encourages private sector activities to bolster the United States’ space transportation infrastructure.

SpaceX aims to diversify its operational portfolio, support multiple customer missions, reduce space transportation costs, enhance exploration, and strengthen national leadership in space. The Starship-Super Heavy operations at KSC are expected to significantly contribute to these goals, including supporting NASA's Artemis and Human Landing System programs.

Alternatives and Environmental Considerations

The 2019 EA identified LC-39A as the preferred location for Starship-Super Heavy operations, leading to current infrastructure developments.

The only alternative to the proposed action is the No Action Alternative, where the FAA would not issue the required license, halting further improvements and launches from LC-39A.

Starship-Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Specifications

The Starship-Super Heavy launch vehicle consists of two stages: the Super Heavy booster and the Starship.

The fully integrated vehicle stands up to 492 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter, powered by 35 Raptor engines for Super Heavy and nine for Starship. Both stages are designed for reusability with minimal post-flight refurbishment. The Super Heavy booster can hold up to 4,100 metric tons of propellant, and Starship can hold up to 2,600 metric tons, with a maximum lift-off thrust of 103 meganewtons.

Operational Plans and Environmental Impact

SpaceX proposes up to 44 Starship-Super Heavy launches per year from LC-39A, with potential landings at LC-39A or on droneships in the Atlantic Ocean.

Temporary airspace and maritime closures would ensure public safety during these operations. The EIS will assess potential environmental impacts from construction and operational activities, including air quality, biological resources, climate, coastal resources, hazardous materials, and more.

Air Quality: The EIS will analyze the concentration of pollutants and the impact on regional air quality.

Biological Resources: This includes the assessment of plant and animal species within the study area.

Climate: Evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on climate patterns.

Coastal Resources: Consistency with Florida’s Coastal Management Program and protection of natural and cultural coastal resources.

Hazardous Materials: Management and prevention of hazardous materials and waste.

Historical and Cultural Resources: Potential impacts on historic sites, Native American sacred sites, and other culturally significant areas.

Land Use: Compatibility with current and planned land uses and regulations.

Natural Resources and Energy Supply: Analysis of resource and energy use.

Noise: The impact of launch noise and sonic booms on human and ecological environments.

Socioeconomics and Environmental Justice: Effects on population, employment, income, housing, public services, and assessment of disproportionate impacts on minority and low-income populations.

Visual Effects: Changes to the visual landscape due to construction and launch operations.

Water Resources: Potential impacts on wetlands, floodplains, surface waters, and groundwater.

Community Involvement and Further Steps

The FAA will conduct thorough analyses to identify potential environmental impacts and engage with the community to address concerns.

Public input will be integral to the EIS process, ensuring that all environmental and community factors are carefully considered before any final decisions are made.

The FAA’s preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement is a crucial step in evaluating SpaceX’s proposal for Starship-Super Heavy operations at Kennedy Space Center. The thorough analysis will ensure that the potential environmental impacts are identified and addressed, paving the way for advancements in space exploration and transportation infrastructure while maintaining environmental and community safeguards.