Environmental groups are asking the FAA to do a full-scale environmental assessment on SpaceX’s explosion-prone facility in Texas. Seven organizations have jointly signed a letter to three FAA administrators to look into the activities at the Boca Chica assembly and live test site in south Texas. The site is used for development and testing of SpaceX’s interplanetary Starship and Super Heavy booster rocket and there have been some spectacular failures. The groups have pointed out to the FAA that the operation is much different and much more dangerous than that described in the original environmental impact statement filed by SpaceX in 2014.

The 2014 document envisioned a 21-acre launch site for up to 12 Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket launches per year. The facility is now a 24-hour-a-day test facility for the interplanetary program that bears no resemblance to the original application, say the groups. “The Starship and Super Heavy booster together will be larger than the approved Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy by an order of magnitude, standing 39 stories tall, with nine million pounds of propellants,” the groups wrote. “Round-the-clock experimental testing has already increased significantly SpaceX’s footprint (and they plan to expand further) by enlarging its acreage, its number of buildings, its number of employees and contractors, its hours of beach and refuge closure, and its number of test firings and pressure tests.” The letter also notes the multiple explosions, some of which “scattered rocket debris and caused wildfires that have consumed more than 100 acres of native habitat on national wildlife refuge land.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. SEVEN organizations? Huh. Since Bezos is coming to be regarded as the new Sam Walton and Musk is sort of like Greta Thunberg’s rich uncle, I would think they’d have gone after Blue Origin just on principle.

  2. Perhaps they’re pursuing this with SpaceX because of the facts recapped in the article – that the facility is now doing a LOT more than was originally approved, including burning a lot more fuel, and exploding a lot of vehicles. I love aviation and aerospace, but I also love our environment. We need to be as environmentally aware as we can in ALL human endeavors.

  3. Wrong agency. As long as nothing actually launches out of that location the FAA does not have any jurisdiction. And the FAA is pretty good at determining what they do not regulate. EPA usually handles environmental issues.

  4. It seems odd that environmentalists would go after Saint Elon but I can see that site would be severely contaminated.

  5. I’m not sure how “severe” the contamination would be when one of the rockets explodes. SpaceX uses liquid methane and liquid oxygen as its fuel and oxidizer, neither one of which would cause any residual pollution. They do their pressure testing with liquid nitrogen, also a natural and benign element. Other than scattering bits of metal around, there is precious little that would constitute “pollution”. As far as pollution potential is concerned, the manufacturing site where the rockets are assembled is more likely to create any materials that would harm the environment. But, that area does not get any press due to the more obvious launch site mishaps. If the EPA (not the FAA) is doing its job, they should be auditing the location to see if any activities are now being conducted that were not in their initial applications and permits. If so, then the EPA should take action to remediate or correct the exposure. Simply scaling up the operation with no increase in emissions or waste production is not a violation of their permits. Elon Musk and SpaceX have made no secret of their intent to produce much larger rockets at the Boca Chica facility. Unless the EPA has been totally asleep, I can’t imagine they would not have had some oversight to the process.

    • A large majority of the population operates within a collection of no-thought-required, push the button and get an automated response mental templates that funnel complex situations down to a few basic triggers. For those who have selected, for example, the “I am an environmentalist” template, a picture of a LOX/methane flame cloud wold automatically trigger an outburst of strident complaint regardless of fact or circumstance. Observe those locked into any of the other common mental templates, be they political, religious or what have you, and seeing the same sort of automated response to certain basic stimuli is a virtual certainty.

      • The only “template” I see here is a knee-jerk “environmentalists don’t like this and are idiots” one. In fact there’s no mental template involved in recognizing that the scale of operations and actual impact on the environment is significantly different than what was approved, and asking that it be reviewed as a result. If you actually read it what it says, they’re talking about larger facilities, more buildings, more people, and more operations, greater actual harm to wildlife — a lot of things that would merit a review having nothing to do with big explosions. I have little doubt that the organizations are well aware of the relatively lower toxicity of the fuels involved. That doesn’t negate the other concerns cited in the article.

        John M. said that “scaling up the operation with no increase in emissions or waste production is not a violation of their permits” — sure, if true. Is it? Seems to me a review would be needed to find out.

        As for whether FAA is the right agency or the EPA doing its job, well, EPA has been essentially gutted by the current administration. It would surprise the heck out of me if they are able to keep adequate tabs on this or any other project nowadays.

  6. Due to the ‘new’ fuels being used for the new Starship, I’d be VERY surprised if the environmental footprint in that regard isn’t far less than the originally proposed F9 and FH launches. Which are not an order of magnitude smaller than the Starship and booster, that’s a clear exaggeration.
    It’s a big and growing facility, true, but I doubt it is as or more polluting that innumerable sites of similar sites around the country. Just more visible and watched.
    They’re even planning to replace the methane flare with a condenser to recover the methane, so emissions are already planned to be reduced. And didn’t the enviro-nuts notice the solar power installation? Shouldn’t they be holding the site up as an example of clean industry?