New FAA documents reveal SpaceX's latest plans for launching Starship prototypes on suborbital flights from South Texas — and potential hurdles to orbit

By Dave Mosher

The Federal Aviation Administration has published several key documents and a new website tied to SpaceX's future in Boca Chica, Texas.

The aerospace company is moving briskly at the site to develop, build, and launch a nearly 400-foot-tall launcher called Starship-Super Heavy. If the system — a steel spaceship and rocket booster — is realized as founder Elon Musk has envisioned, it could reduce the cost of access to low-Earth orbit by about 1,000-fold, revolutionize travel, send people to the moon, and maybe help populate Mars.

But while SpaceX privately owns its South Texas launch and development site, the Elon Musk-founded aerospace company has strayed far from its original plans.

In July 2014, the company completed a years-long environmental impact statement. The document described how SpaceX would use the site as a commercial spaceport to launch a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket roughly once per month. Any major deviations from that plan must be approved by the FAA.

Those deviations have most frequently arrived as written reevaluations. The FAA is not required to publish the documents, but the agency occasionally does so to its website for SpaceX's project. 

On Monday night, the FAA posted three new written reevaluation documents, which we've embedded at the end of this story: addendums from November 2019 and June 2020 to a prior stor written reevaluation, plus a new reevaluation from May 2020.

The agency also launched a new Starship-Super Heavy project website over the weekend to involve the public in its review of SpaceX's plans to fly the vehicles to orbit from Boca Chica.

What the new FAA documents contain

spacex starship mars rocket prototype serial number 5 sn5 150 meter test launch flight raptor engine drone video boca chica village beach texas august 4 2020 twitter elon musk EexYPnPU0AEqLUI
SpaceX's Starship rocket-ship prototype "SN5" launches to about 150 meters (492 feet) above Boca Chica Beach, Texas, on August 4, 2020.
Elon Musk/SpaceX via Twitter

The documents detail SpaceX's plans to fly Starship prototypes on suborbital, up-and-down flights from Boca Chica, as well as what potential environmental impacts those plans may cause.

The FAA believes such activity falls within scope of SpaceX's original plans because the company said it may fly "a variety of reusable suborbital launch vehicles" from the site (though it didn't specify how big the vehicles might be, how frequently they'd lift off, or even which fuels they'd use).

The addendums formally cover much of what is already known about the launch site and SpaceX's plans. Such information comes from prior FAA reevaluation documents, aerial photos, SpaceX fans documenting the company's progress and test launches, and statements from Musk himself.

For example, the November 2019 addendum revises a 2-3 year suborbital test program for Starship flights approved in May 2019. The addendum calls for a schedule of more incremental test flights, and with more Starship prototypes. It also swaps an ambitious flight to 100 kilometers (62 miles) — what many consider the edge of space — for a flight up to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). (These numbers have since shifted again, though, initially to 20 kilometers [12.5 miles] in July and then, as Musk tweeted in September, to 15 kilometers [9.3 miles].)

The June 2020 addendum edits SpaceX's Starship test plans again, calling for a revision to the layout of the company's beachside launch site (below), which it calls the Vertical Launch Area.

spacex starship launch site boca chica texas may 2020 written reevaluation environmental impact statement wr eis drawing diagram 1
SpaceX's planned Starship launch site layout at Boca Chica, Texas, from a written reevaluation addendum signed by the FAA in June 2020.
FAA

Specifically, SpaceX requested permission to build a new launch mount and an extra suborbital test pad — just in case another one of its Starship prototypes catastrophically explodes and damages the primary pad, as happened on May 29, 2020.

"This anomaly caused damage to the test pad, which halted testing operations until repairs are completed," the addendum says. "With a redundant test pad, SpaceX would be able to continue testing operations concurrent with repairing a damaged pad."

The June 2020 addendum also provides a more detailed look at how SpaceX's environmental impact has shifted since abandoning Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets from Boca Chica and committing to Starship. 

One section covers its anticipated effects on nearby wetlands, another deals with noise. Yet another estimates the amount of climate-warming emissions SpaceX's suborbital test program is likely to generate per year, since the system burns methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) with oxygen. A table combines test-firings of prototypes and suborbital "hop" launches to estimate nearly 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.

But the most important document of the bunch is the written reevaluation signed by the FAA on May 22. The file spans 26 pages, was required for SpaceX to receive its suborbital launch license from the FAA on May 28, and incorporates concerns from state and federal environmental agencies.

In the reevaluation, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service took issue with several aspects of SpaceX's plans and ongoing activities. Those criticisms targeted the "fluid nature" of the company's construction projects, excessive road closures to Boca Chica Beach (which Brownsville locals prize), around-the-clock work that may affect nocturnal threatened or endangered species, prototype explosions, and sprawling wildfires the company has triggered.

The FAA responded to each concern in the document, ultimately determining "there are no significant environmental changes, and that all pertinent conditions and requirements of the prior approval have been met or will be met" with SpaceX's suborbital test-flight plans.

But Starship can't yet launch to orbit

Starship Launch Animation _ South Texas.2019 10 08 12_40_42
An illustration of SpaceX's planned 39-story Starship rocket system launching from Boca Chica, Texas.
SpaceX/YouTube

However, SpaceX does not yet have the FAA's go-ahead to launch any Starships to orbit from Boca Chica.

In its replies to concerns noted by other agencies — some of which call for a new EIS, which could take years to complete (an eternity in Musk time) — the agency repeatedly noted it is working with SpaceX to draft an "environmental review" of those plans.

The agency has since announced SpaceX is pursuing an environmental assessment. The move could save SpaceX valuable time in getting FAA approval to fly Starship to orbit — but only if the agency determines such a program won't have impacts too different from plans spelled out in its original EIS from July 2014. If the impacts are significantly different, SpaceX may face an exhaustive new impact statement.

"The FAA continues to work with SpaceX to finalize its draft description of its proposed operations," an agency spokesperson told Business Insider in September. "The agency does not have an expected date of concluding this action."

Over the weekend, however, the agency published a "SpaceX Starship Super Heavy Project" website to share information about the company's orbital plans for Boca Chica, which it calls a "community engagement portal."

"The portal will provide project information, relevant documents for public review, a link to sign up to receive notifications on public meetings and review, and information to comment on documents as they become available," the spokesperson previously said. (Indeed, the site includes a form to receive email alerts for "public involvement opportunities" related to the project's review.)

SpaceX did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment. The FAA acknowledged Business Insider's queries but could not provide comment in time for publication. (We'll update this story if and when we hear back.)

The three new FAA documents are embedded below.

Read the November 2019 addendum:

Read the June 2020 addendum:

Read the May 2020 written reevaluation:

Are you a space-industry insider with a story or information to share? Email Dave Mosher, send him a Twitter direct message, or consider more secure communication options listed here.