Today the FAA released the Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) for Starship/Super Heavy operations out of Boca Chica, Texas. These documents provide insight into what the future holds for SpaceX in South Texas.
The release of the Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) is a major step towards SpaceX gaining approval for launching Starship Super Heavy to orbit from Boca Chica. It should be noted, however, that the FAA is not licensing the entire program simply due to the fact that SpaceX still has not flushed out all the details for the program. SpaceX provided an initial mission profile to analyze. This PEA is also designed in a way that future, more specific reviews can base their information off of details provided, referred to as tiering. This approach was decided on due to the changing nature of a fledgling program. The competition of this process also does not guarantee the FAA will give SpaceX permission to operate from this site. In this article, we provide some highlights and notable features from the PEA.
Vertical Launch Area
New additions to the Vertical Launch Area (VLA) are expected to be a second orbital launchpad (Pad B), redundant landing pad, two integration towers, tank test stands, a desalination plant, a natural gas power plant, and additional support buildings. For the purposes of this PEA, the existing integration tower SpaceX has constructed does not exist. This allows the FAA not to give the structure prejudice in the review. Each of these towers will be around 490 feet tall. The FAA did warn SpaceX about constructing the integration tower before the environmental review since it could determine that the tower was a hazard and not be approved. However, the draft PEA states that these towers will not pose a significant effect within the area. SpaceX will also have a 450-foot tall crane located at the VLA to support vehicle integration and the launch site. SpaceX is still determining if a flame diverter is required at the orbital launch mount.
Starship Super Heavy
The draft PEA states that Super Heavy could have up to 37 Raptor engines. With 37 Raptor engines, Super Heavy would produce upwards of 74 meganewtons of thrust. Starship and Super Heavy will conduct static fires before launches of either vehicle. The Pre-flight Operations include a Dry Dress Rehearsal (DDR) followed by a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR). After both of these tests have been completed, SpaceX would then conduct a Static Fire. This will be like the WDR, but the engines will ignite for 5 to 15 seconds to verify performance. Starship would conduct a static fire before integration with Super Heavy, and Super Heavy would conduct one with or without Starship integrated.
SpaceX plans on expanding the solar farm located near the Launch and Landing Control Center to provide power for both the production and launch sites. A payload processing facility is also expected to be constructed, however, SpaceX has not decided where it will be located within the production site yet.
The Draft PEA states that SpaceX is currently targeting up to five Starship Super Heavy launches annually, but this could change as the program evolves and the launch manifest expands. SpaceX would have to get approval to fly more than 5 orbital launches a year should they need to. While there is a lot that can go wrong during a flight, SpaceX and the FAA view a fire on the launchpad being the most likely anomaly.
The preliminary target for the first orbital launch of Starship is still about 62 nautical miles north of Kauai, Hawaiian Islands. Future missions could target landing at the VLA, Atlantic, Gulf, or Pacific. SpaceX is also investigating landing on islands in the Pacific Ocean. This plan would be subject to a separate environmental review. During an orbital launch, Super Heavy would conduct a boost-back burn following stage separation to land back either at the launch site or in the Gulf. A landing in the Gulf could either be on a floating ocean platform or ditching into the sea. Ditching into the sea would result in the loss of the booster. Ocean landings will happen no closer than 19 miles offshore. If Starship were to land on an offshore platform, the vehicle would be transported to the Port of Brownsville via barge.
This map shows what areas could be closed during various operations of Starship Super Heavy. The Brownsville Shipping Channel is expected to be closed during orbital launches and some suborbital launches. Some areas may not be closed for tank tests, WDRs, and static fires.
Public Comment on Environmental Assessment
With the release of the draft PEA comes a public comment period. This allows for the public to look over what the FAA has assembled and raise concerns, questions, or comments. All comments or questions are due by Monday, November 1, 2021 [Was October 18, 2021 however the FAA extended the public comment window because they received requests to extend it].
To close out this article, let’s come down to earth a little bit. After the final PEA is completed, the FAA will then decide what to issue: A Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), Mitigated FONSI, or a Notice of Intent to prepare an EIS.
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