After months of suspense, the Federal Aviation Administration has finally weighed in on the environmental effects of the planned expansion of SpaceX’s sprawling Starbase launch facility near Boca Chica, Texas. The agency says that if SpaceX takes some 75 actions to limit environmental hazards, the company can continue that expansion and its application for a launch license for its Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy rocket booster.

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Boca Chica is a critical site for the company, where engineers have been ramping up their testing of Starship and Super Heavy in anticipation of deep-space flights. But local groups, including those focused on the environment and beach access, are worried about increased pollution, the facility’s potential effects on wildlife, and limitations on access to public beaches. The site lies along the Gulf of Mexico and is near wildlife refuges, populated areas, local roads, liquified natural gas facilities, and the border with Mexico.

The FAA released its initial assessment last September and organized two virtual public hearings, through which people in the area, as well as SpaceX fans and critics around the country, could offer opinions. Now, in a report issued today, the agency decided that the company needs to address a number of issues before SpaceX gets its coveted launch license, including better monitoring of potential effects on vegetation and wildlife and notifying the surrounding communities of noise and road closures.

The FAA’s decision could have far-reaching implications, since until SpaceX gets a green light from the agency, it can’t continue with its testing and launching plans for Starship and the Super Heavy. The company surely has a lot riding on that rocket. Along with NASA’s Space Launch System, the Super Heavy will be one of the only heavy-lift launch vehicles capable of transporting humans and equipment to the moon and eventually Mars. NASA has also invested in a lander version of Starship as part of its Artemis program, for when astronauts return to the moon in a few years.

As of press time, the FAA and SpaceX had not responded to WIRED’s interview requests. But when the assessment came out, SpaceX tweeted a link, adding: “One step closer to the first orbital flight test of Starship.”

For his part, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had threatened to move Starship testing to Florida if the FAA’s process took a long time or called for an environmental impact statement (EIS), a more rigorous and time-consuming review, which would then be followed by a mitigation plan to reduce potential ecological harms.

The FAA did not go that route and instead ruled more favorably to SpaceX with a Finding of No Significant Impact. The agency nonetheless says the company has more work to do, and it packs a lot into its 174-page report. It says SpaceX needs to allow biologists to watch for effects on wildlife and must remove any launch debris that falls into sensitive habitats. SpaceX needs to adjust the lighting at the launch complex to minimize disturbances to wildlife and residents; give more advanced notice of launches; limit how long State Highway 4 is closed, and avoid closing it on weekends and holidays. This environmental review isn’t the only review, either: Before SpaceX can continue its Starship launch license application, the US Department of Transportation will also assess its potential effects on public safety and national security.

“It feels like to me they wanted to find a middle ground between requiring a full EIS and getting SpaceX moving as quickly as it could,” says Wendy Whitman Cobb, a researcher at the Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies in Montgomery, Alabama.

Getting to this point has been a long and winding road. In 2014, the FAA approved the site for the company’s smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. But SpaceX expanded the scope of its plans, prompting a second review that would consider not only the risks involved with testing and launching bigger rockets but also noise, air, and water pollution hazards and the effects of new construction at the site. After releasing a 152-page report in September, the agency originally gave itself until December 31 to issue a decision.

But agency officials postponed that deadline several times. In a brief statement released on April 29, by which they’d expected to deliver their decision, they cited SpaceX’s “multiple changes to its application that require additional FAA analysis” and wrote that they were continuing to review around 18,000 comments from the public. The FAA has also stated several times that at the end of the process, a launch license is not guaranteed.

The lengthy review isn’t unusual, Whitman Cobb says. “I don’t think this is unique to spaceflight or SpaceX. Any time you get these big facilities built up or new land uses, there’s always concerns of the local area, and rightly so. The job of the government is to balance the interests of people trying to expand business and commerce and the local concerns,” she says. The time the FAA has taken for the review “just reflects the difficulty of bureaucratic regulations, especially for an industry like spaceflight that is moving so quickly.”

There are only a handful of spaceports in the United States right now, so the FAA has seldom dealt with the environmental and local issues related to massive launch and testing sites. But that could change as the industry grows. Cape Canaveral, Florida, which became the nation’s first bona fide spaceport some 60 years ago, has a wide swath of territory protected around it. It and many other spaceports, including SpaceX’s in Boca Chica, lie on ocean coastlines. A few others have been built in extremely isolated landlocked areas. These swaths of water or unpopulated land are meant to protect both people and wildlife from falling debris and chemical contamination in case a rocket explodes in the air—not on or just above the launchpad.

“There’s always some chance you’ll have a failure in that first 30 seconds to a minute, where it would be close enough to the ground where you’ll see debris fall. I think it’s a very small chance—and this is what the FAA will quantify—maybe less likely than being hit by lightning. But the chance isn’t zero. What if a rocket blows up and it lands in a wildlife refuge or over someone’s house?” asks Mariel Borowitz, a space policy expert at Georgia Tech.

Spaceports that launch space planes bound for the edge of space, like Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity and Sierra Space Corporation’s Dream Chaser, have similar environmental and safety requirements, even if they’re not launching rockets on orbital missions. The FAA completed its assessment of Virgin Galactic’s launch site in Mojave, California, in 2012, while Sierra Space is in the pre-application phase with the agency to land its spacecraft at Space Florida’s Shuttle Landing Facility.

In any case, other companies and communities are surely watching the outcome of this process. The FAA has issued 14 licenses for spaceports around the country, from Alaska to Alabama, and more will be built. (Not every spaceport actually launches a spacecraft.) Some proposals have become controversial, like the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association’s idea for a spaceport on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Even if a proposed spaceport gets FAA approval, the local community could put the kibosh on it, which is what happened to a proposal for the southeastern coast of Georgia. Residents soured on the idea, partly because of a lack of communication of risks and benefits by proponents and by the FAA, Borowitz says, and voters overwhelmingly rejected the plan in March. That highlights the need for transparency and clearer communication, including at Boca Chica, she argues. “It’s so easy to engage that community, hear their concerns, and explain what the processes are and what the benefits might be. And be realistic and upfront about the risks,” she says.

Some of SpaceX’s critics in the Boca Chica region believe the company hasn’t done well on this task so far and worry that it won’t follow through with the actions the FAA requires. “SpaceX does not have a great history of complying with all the environmental requirements from 2014. Their record was spotty at best,” says Jim Chapman, a board member of nonprofit group Save RGV, referring to the Rio Grande Valley.

Save RGV, along with the Sierra Club and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, have filed a lawsuit against the Texas General Land Office, Texas land commissioner George P. Bush, and Cameron County in Texas for frequently limiting access to the Boca Chica beach during SpaceX’s Starship operations. They claim that last year SpaceX closed the roads near the beach more often than allowed by the existing agreement with the FAA.

The decision is also putting the spotlight on the FAA itself. Because of the agency’s time-consuming review process, some commercial space agency advocates havecalledfor changing its regulatory role and moving some of that work to other agencies. Other critics, like Chapman and his colleagues, worry that the FAA hasn’t gone far enough in its attempts to mitigate hazards from the spaceport expansion, and that it won’t enforce its own requirements.

“I think the FAA has a reputational motivation to ensure that SpaceX is adhering to the letter of the law,” Whitman Cobb says. “They have an incentive to be watching closely.”