Musk’s SpaceX rocket launches may be wiping out endangered birds, putting his FAA approval in limbo

May 5, 2022, 12:18 PM UTC

The habitat of an endangered bird found only on North American coastlines could fall by half near SpaceX‘s Texas rocket test site if it is expanded, putting the planned enlargement in question.

The expansion of Elon Musk’s Starship launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, which has yet to get approval from the Federal Aviation Authority, has come under scrutiny over its possible impact on the critical habitat of the piping plover bird—whose population in the area has fallen by half since SpaceX’s arrival—as well as the impact it could have on the nearby habitats of the red knot bird and two breeds of wildcat—ocelots and jaguarundis—according to documents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, first reported by CNBC.

The documents, submitted to the FAA in February, say that explosions, heat plumes, blast overpressure, falling debris, noise, and other issues could be behind the plover’s population drop. The report indicates that of the 903.65 acres of “critical habitat” for the piping plover that surround Boca Chica, 446.27 would be lost as a result of SpaceX’s activities.

This concern brings into question how the launch site will impact the whole region. “If SpaceX activities have resulted in the loss of over half the Boca Chica population, then the entire critical habitat is being impacted,” the document says.

Piping plover and Chick
An image of a piping plover and her chick on a beach. Musk’s SpaceX rocket launches may be wiping out these endangered birds
Getty Images

Not taking flight

The report doesn’t directly threaten the launch site’s future, noting that “the implementation of the conservation measures proposed should ultimately result in avoidance and minimization of adverse effects.”

But the possibility that environmental issues will cause a change in SpaceX’s plans cannot be dismissed. SpaceX is still awaiting approval from the FAA before it can proceed with Starship’s next phase: going into orbit. The FAA is the final arbiter on the approval and oversight of the SpaceX facilities in Texas and requires companies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure their activities do not breach the Endangered Species Act.

If the FAA demands more information about the potential environmental impacts or if lawsuits emerge, Musk said, he could move Starship launches to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But he noted that this decision would delay the first orbital launch by more than half a year.

The findings could hamper Musk’s plans to build new facilities and test larger rockets near the cities of Brownsville and South Padre Island, Texas. And SpaceX might have to alter its current plans at the Boca Chica site, which, in the most recent proposal to the FAA in September 2021, included a new launch and landing pad, a power plant, natural gas processing facilities, and water infrastructure.

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