FAA wraps up public hearings on SpaceX Starship launch site environmental review

SpaceX stacks its SN20 Starship prototype atop its Super Heavy booster for the first time at the company's Starbase facility in South Texas in August 2021.
SpaceX stacks its SN20 Starship prototype atop its Super Heavy booster for the first time at the company's Starbase facility in South Texas in August 2021. (Image credit: Elon Musk/Twitter)

News flash: People have strong opinions about SpaceX.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) held two public hearings this week about its environmental assessment of SpaceX's orbital launch activities at Starbase, the company's facility near the South Texas village of Boca Chica.

Those activities center on the testing and eventual operation of Starship, the heavy-lift transportation system SpaceX is developing to take people and cargo to the moon, Mars and other deep-space destinations.

Photos: SpaceX lifts huge Super Heavy rocket onto launch stand

The FAA released a draft of the environmental assessment on Sept. 17 and asked the public to provide comments. The two hearings, which were held via Zoom on Monday (Oct. 18) and Wednesday (Oct. 20), provided a forum for such comments, and many people took advantage of the opportunity.

One was Joyce Hamilton, who described herself as a South Texas resident and a frequent visitor to the Boca Chica area over the past 20 years. Hamilton said she's concerned about the impact an expanded Starbase could have "on what is a fragile and unique coastline."

Biologists have already noticed a dramatic decrease in the number of nesting plovers in the area as a result of SpaceX's activities, she said. She also stressed that locals have lost the ability to access nearby beaches on a regular basis.

"I feel all of these are big concerns, and I'd like to just end by urging the FAA to conduct a serious comprehensive environmental impact study," Hamilton said. 

Rebecca Hinojosa, a resident of Brownsville, which is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of Starbase, registered her opposition as well. She objected to the FAA's review process, saying the agency has failed to provide requisite Spanish-language notification and updates, and also voiced serious concerns about SpaceX's Starbase activities.

"I've seen firsthand how SpaceX operations are actually very destructive to our community — how it's driving gentrification, how it's starting to displace locals. People have already been displaced from the Boca Chica Village," Hinojosa said during Monday's hearing. "I oppose the permit and any authorization for SpaceX to expand their facility here at Boca Chica Beach."

Hamilton and Hinojosa were in the minority, however. Most of the commenters were pro-SpaceX, citing Starship's potential to help humanity colonize Mars and achieve other ambitious exploration feats.

"I think that Boca Chica is the place where Starship is going to innovate the world," California resident Nicholas Andrich, who described himself as a frequent visitor to Boca Chica, said during Monday's hearing. 

"There might be causes that might concern people, but we have to sometimes put those aside for the greater good," Andrich said. Putting boots on Mars "would be amazing, and I feel like that is one of the most important factors here," he added.

Brandon McHugh agreed.

"I'm on the side of SpaceX with this one," McHugh said during Monday's hearing. "I will always be on their side. I think that their endeavors are absolutely necessary and vital to humanity as a species."

The FAA will continue accepting public comments through Nov. 1, then incorporate those thoughts into its final assessment. We don't yet know what that ultimate finding will be. If the FAA agrees with Hamilton and concludes that a full environmental impact statement is necessary, SpaceX will have to take its foot off the gas at Starbase until the required paperwork gets done.

That would doubtless annoy SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, who has been critical of FAA regulations in the past. SpaceX is gearing up for the Starship program's first-ever orbital test flight. Last night (Oct. 21), the company test-fired the engines on SN20, the prototype that will make that leap. 

"If all goes well, Starship will be ready for its first orbital launch attempt next month, pending regulatory approval," Musk tweeted today (Oct. 22).

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.