SpaceX is expanding its South Texas facility located in Boca Chica Beach on the Gulf of Mexico. The expansion will allow the company to build more rockets and spacecraft, including the Falcon 9 rocket, in a central location. The project, already underway, will cost $100 million and take over two years to complete.
However, SpaceX may be forced to track and minimize its impact on endangered species and their habitats to secure approvals for testing and commercial launches of its Starship spacecraft.
According to documents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), recent declines in an endangered bird species called the piping plover have been linked to SpaceX activity at the Boca Chica facility.
Ultimately, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must grant SpaceX approval to stage launches of the Starship rocket using the Super Heavy booster. Before permitting launches, the FAA must consider the advice of other federal and state agencies, including the FWS.
SpaceX already launches Falcon 9 rockets from the South Texas facility. Still, it planned to also launch its Starship Super Heavy lift-launch vehicle from the area once expansion was complete. The new launch vehicle is much larger than the Falcon 9 and is intended to be used for human spaceflight, robotic exploration, and satellite launches.
However, the facility sits on a small piece of land surrounded by wildlife refuge areas.
The FWS determined that if SpaceX moves forward and begins launching its larger rockets from the facility, it would negatively impact some species protected under the Endangered Species Act and hundreds of acres of their habitat. The agency did note SpaceX’s activity would not fully wipe out those species.
According to the FWS, the mating, migration, health, and habitat of two bird species, the piping plover and the red knot, and two cat species, the jaguarundi and the ocelot, would be impacted by expanded activity from SpaceX.
Increased vehicle traffic, noise, heat, explosions, and habitat fragmentation caused by construction, rocket testing, and launches could all disrupt the threatened species.
The FWS also said that increased SpaceX activity could impact several sea turtle species but deferred to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for their marine life expertise.
According to the FWS, one of the turtles that will be affected is the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the most critically endangered sea turtle in the world, which nests on the beaches of Boca Chica.
Based on SpaceX’s proposal to the FAA, the FWS determined the facility’s expansion would eliminate 446.27 of the 903.65 remaining acres of piping plover critical habitat.
The FWS recommends that if SpaceX is approved for the launches, the company should be required to monitor the affected species carefully. They should also conduct construction and launch activities at specific seasons or times of day and night, and workers should be shuttled to the location to reduce vehicle traffic.
Overall, the FWS response may be good news for SpaceX.
Jared Margolis, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who read a copy of the draft, said FWS did not ask for any significant commitments.
“It seems the Fish and Wildlife Service is bending over backwards to figure out a way to permit more of what has been a very detrimental use of the Boca Chica site as far as impacts to wildlife go,” Margolis said.
In February, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said if the FAA does not approve launches of the larger Starship rocket, he will seek to launch them from Florida. In that case, the Boca Chica spaceport would be turned into more of a Research and Development campus.