Photograph from beneath a giant rocket component.
Enlarge / SpaceX’s Booster 4 is lifted onto its orbital launch mount in South Texas.

The Federal Aviation Administration released a draft environmental review of SpaceX’s plans for orbital launches from South Texas on Friday, kicking off a 30-day public comment period.

The long-awaited procedural step is the first of several regulatory hurdles that SpaceX must clear before obtaining final permission to launch its Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage from a site near Boca Chica, Texas. Such a launch likely remains months away, but it now appears that the feds will ultimately greenlight South Texas for orbital launches. That seemed far from assured before today.

The document, formally called a Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment, evaluates the potential environmental impacts of SpaceX’s Starship program, including launch and reentry. It also reviews debris recovery, the integration tower and other launch-related construction, and local road closures between Brownsville and Boca Chica beach.

For the large majority of these analyses, the FAA document finds “no significant impacts.” The impact of noise to surrounding communities, including South Padre Island located several miles away, was believed to be one of the biggest concerns. But an independent assessment found noise levels to be manageable.

One exception came under the “biological resources” category. “The FAA has determined the Proposed Action would adversely affect species listed under and critical habitat designated under the federal Endangered Species Act,” the report states. However, there may be a way to mitigate these impacts. Another potential area of concern is excessive road closures of Highway 4. This may be one reason why SpaceX is proposing an average of five Super Heavy launches per year during the operational phase of the program.

Following the release of this draft assessment, the FAA will hold virtual public hearings on October 6 and 7 before the public comment period ends on October 18, 2021. SpaceX founder Elon Musk asked for support on Twitter shortly after the FAA released the draft document. “Please add your voice to the public comments,” Musk said. “Support is greatly appreciated! Humanity’s future on the moon, Mars & beyond depends upon it.”

After the public comment period closes, the FAA will finalize its environmental assessment. Following this, the FAA will issue one of three rulings: a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), a Mitigated FONSI, or a Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. A “FONSI” would allow the formal launch licensing process to proceed. If a full Environmental Impact Statement is needed, launches from South Texas would likely be delayed by months, if not years, as more paperwork is completed.

SpaceX has not revealed the full extent of its launch plans for Super Heavy and Starship, but the document suggests the company may eventually land its Super Heavy booster down range on a platform in the Gulf of Mexico, and Starship may land in remote islands in the Pacific Ocean. SpaceX also will likely conduct launches from a platform in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as a pad at Kennedy Space Center.

The upside of Friday’s document release is that SpaceX can now move forward with some confidence that it ultimately will at least be able to conduct orbital test flights of Super Heavy and Starship from South Texas. This is critical as the site is just a couple of kilometers from the factory where the company assembles the giant rocket and spacecraft.