Elon Musk’s SpaceX expansion on hold by FAA and endangered animals

The proposed expansion of SpaceX‘s rocket-testing site in south Texas is on hold after federal regulators raised questions over how increased activity by the commercial space company would affect endangered birds.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday said it was delaying the release of an environmental assessment of SpaceX’s expansion of its Boca Chica launch site to test a new rocket. Getting final approval is expected to hinge on the company, headed by tech mogul Elon Musk, taking steps to reduce the site’s impact on local wildlife, reports CNBC.

The expanded footprint at SpaceX’s launch site would include a solar farm, additional launch pads, a power plant as well as other infrastructure upgrades needed for its Starship/Super Heavy rocket, according to FAA documents. The reusable vehicle will be approximately 400 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter and is central to Musk’s ambitions of making travel to the moon and Mars more feasible.

SpaceX’s bid to expand its rocket-testing site in southern Texas is paused as the Federal Aviation Administration questions how the heightened activity by the space company would impact endangered birds. Receiving final approval will likely hinge on the company, headed by Elon Musk. Above, SpaceX’s Starship SN20 is stacked atop its Super Heavy Booster 4 at the company’s Starbase site in southern Texas on February 10, 2022.
JIM WATSON/Getty Images

Documents obtained by CNBC through a records request show the expansion would affect critical wildlife habitat, including species protected by the Endangered Species Act.

A central concern of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is how the heat, noise and habitat disruption from the expansion would impact the piping plover and red knot, two coastal bird species, as well as breeds of wild cats.

Increased SpaceX activity at its southern Texas facility has been linked to a decrease in the piping plover’s population, and SpaceX’s proposed expansion would roughly halve the 900 acres of habitat for the sparrow-sized bird, according to CNBC.

The wintering piping plover population has decreased by more than half between 2018 and 2021, according to documents.

“It is not clear what happened to the ‘missing plovers,’ but if SpaceX activities have resulted in the loss of over half the Boca Chica population, then the entire critical habitat is being impacted,” reads an FWS document obtained by CNBC.

The FWS has called for SpaceX to keep a close eye on animal populations and limit construction and launch activity to specific times to reduce impact.

The FAA plans to issue its final environmental assessment of SpaceX’s proposal on May 31, which will impact whether the company gets its license for expansion.

But Musk has indicated he’s not willing to wait too long. He said in February that he’d move testing of the new rocket to Florida if faced with ongoing delays, according to SpaceNews.

Newsweek has reached out to SpaceX for comment.

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