FAA may not approve SpaceX launch tower

By Gaige Davila

Starship mounted on the Super Heavy booster next to the launch tower that recently became the attention of the FAA. Photo from Elon Musk’s Twitter account.

SpaceX is once again under federal scrutiny, this time for a launch tower meant for the company’s first orbital launch from its Boca Chica facility.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that SpaceX’s construction of the tower without receiving a launch license for orbital flight, or a space flight with one full revolution around the earth, “may complicate” the agency’s ongoing environmental review process, Reuters reported last week. 

“The company is building the tower at its own risk,” FAA spokesperson Steve Kulm told the PRESS this past Monday. 

SpaceX told the FAA that they would not be using the 480-feet tall tower for launches, saying it would only be used for “production, research and development purposes,” according to a May 6 letter to SpaceX Director of Environmental Health and Safety Matt Thompson.

The FAA disputes this, citing SpaceX’s Programmatic Environmental Assessment’s project description of the integration tower, with the company saying it is “to integrate the Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle,” with the Super Heavy “mated to the launch mount, followed by Starship mated to Super Heavy.” 

SpaceX also wrote that they would use the integration towers for orbital launches if the FAA approved it. 

The FAA says SpaceX’s description of the integration tower implies that they are for launches and may be a part of SpaceX’s launch license application’s safety analysis. This means the integration towers would need to be changed or taken down to comply with the FAA’s environmental review process. 

SpaceX has asked the FAA to give a “Written Re-evaluation” towards their orbital launch project, rather than an environmental assessment, to show their project was within the scope of the FAA’s initial 2014 Environmental Impact Statement. Last year, the FAA decided a new environmental assessment was warranted as SpaceX increased its activity at their Boca Chica site, launching several rockets last year, the last landing without exploding, unlike the previous ones. 

The FAA declined, saying the integration tower, which was initially supposed to be 395-feet tall, is now taller than both the on-site water and lightning towers and requires more environmental review.

Thompson, nor SpaceX Director of Starship Operations Shyamal Patel, responded to the PRESS’ requests for comment. 

SpaceX’s plans to launch their  Starship rocket with their 230-feet tall “Super Heavy” booster to send the spacecraft into orbit. The booster will come off and land somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, according to SpaceX’s Federal Communications Commission fillings. 

Starship will fly through the Florida Straits and around Earth until landing off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii, in around 90 minutes.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in June that the company planned to have its orbital launch in July. The FAA’s environmental review has not yet been completed, however.

When the FAA concludes their environmental review, they can prepare to draft a new environmental impact statement or an environmental assessment, the latter of which would require a public comment period once the study is completed. The process could take months to complete. 

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