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Texas Congressmen Pushing for SpaceX Launch Approval

Two South Texas congressmen are calling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expedite its review of SpaceX's Starship project near Boca Chica Beach outside Brownsville.

The sky begins to light up before sunrise over a prototype of the SpaceX Starship at the SpaceX launch facility in Texas, near Boca Chica.
Smiley N. Pool/Dallas Morning News
(TNS) — Two South Texas congressmen are calling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expedite its review of SpaceX's Starship project near Boca Chica Beach outside Brownsville.

U.S. Reps. Tony Gonzales and Vicente Gonzalez sent a letter Friday to agency Director Martha Williams calling for "timely environmental review" of the company's launch operations.

"The United States is currently in a space race with the rest of the world — and the Federal government should not hinder public companies as they develop and push United States to remain a leader in the space exploration realm," the congressmen wrote. "It is of the utmost importance that FWS makes their environmental review decision sooner rather than later."

It's the last regulatory hurdle SpaceX has to clear before the Federal Aviation Administration can issue a new launch license.

The letter is the latest sign of growing pressure from SpaceX to return to flight after the FAA grounded Starship in the aftermath of an April 20 flight that revealed serious safety and environmental concerns with its operations.

SpaceX has said it's ready to go but is awaiting clearance.

Gonzales, a San Antonio Republican, and Gonzalez, a McAllen Democrat, said regulatory delay "greatly impacts SpaceX's operations in South Texas" and potentially hurts the region's economy.

"SpaceX is one of the largest employers in the Rio Grande Valley, employing over 1,700 people — and is a major economic driver in the area," they wrote. "A further delay in the environmental review will continue to harm the small businesses and tourism industry of South Texas."

The Fish and Wildlife Service must conclude its consultation under the Endangered Species Act before the FAA will complete its environmental review of the launch license evaluation.

The wildlife service "reinitiated" its consultation Oct. 19 and the agency has "up to 135 days to issue an amended biological opinion," agency spokeswoman Aubry Buzek said last month. That would take it to early March but she said the agency did "not expect to take the full amount of time."

Ready or not?

The agency didn't immediately respond Saturday to questions about the congressional letter, but Buzek said Wednesday the agency was still working on its review.

On Friday, SpaceX posted on social media that Starship could launch as early as next Friday "pending final regulatory approval." SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared the post, adding "Assuming regulatory approval."

Musk envisions Starship someday ferrying humans to the Moon and Mars, but problems with the first test flight of the Starship and its Super Heavy Booster on April 20 have created a rough path to flying again.

In that launch, the booster's 33 Raptor engines obliterated the launch pad's surface, flung hunks of concrete and metal thousands of yards, sparked fires in the surrounding wildlife refuge and created a plume of pulverized concrete and sand that coated cars and homes more than 6 miles away.

Starship reached an altitude of 24 miles but failed to separate from its booster and began tumbling before exploding after a 40-second delay in its flight termination system, which is intended to destroy the craft if it goes out of control.

The FAA completed its safety review of Starship last month after SpaceX completed 63 corrective actions identified in the agency's mishap investigation.

'Concern to NASA'

SpaceX holds billions in government contracts, including more than $4 billion in NASA contracts to develop a specialized Starship that can land on the moon. The Starship Human Landing System is an important part of NASA's $93 billion Artemis program to explore the moon, create a lunar base and prepare for future Mars missions.

NASA officials have also been chiming in about Starship's return to flight. On Friday, the Washington Post quoted NASA administrator Bill Nelson as saying "It is essential to us that SpaceX be able to test their rocket."

He continued, "I am given to believe that they are going to get the approval of Fish and Wildlife and therefore the FAA. I don't know the timing, but of course a major delay would be of very considerable concern to NASA."

As it awaits the FAA launch license, SpaceX has pressed forward with its launch preparations.

On Friday, Starship watchers shared photos of SpaceX employees apparently installing explosives on Starship's redesigned flight termination system. Some perceived it as an indicator a launch could occur soon.

Coordination among SpaceX and the various local, state and federal entities also has continued.

A Coast Guard Notice to Mariners released Wednesday warned of "hazardous space operations" within a week and stated "rocket launching operations are scheduled" near Boca Chica Beach between 5:25 and 11:10 a.m. Central time Nov. 15.

That notice lined up with closures listed on Cameron County's SpaceX update page, but it changes frequently.

Rep. Tony Gonzales, a retired Navy cryptologist, said he's "majorly focused on space." He held the space portfolio during his time as a Department of Defense fellow for then-Sen. Marco Rubio.

Gonzales has also built connections with Musk. In late September, he met with the tech mogul in Eagle Pass to discuss border issues.

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