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Friday, April 19, 2024

The FAA Weighs the SpaceX Launch Site's Environmental Effects

On a foggy day in March, a prototype of SpaceX’s giant silver rocket known as Starship, dubbed Serial Number 11 or SN11, was supposed to reorient itself vertically while landing and deftly touch down on a pad at the company’s launch site near Boca Chica, Texas, a couple miles from the Mexico border. But as it descended, it abruptly exploded, raining debris from the sky. 

In an industry that goes by the old chestnut “Space is hard,” failures come with the territory. (“At least the crater is in the right place!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted.) Some of SN11’s predecessors have met the same fate, and others have blown up on the launchpad, never making it off the ground. In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration assessed and approved SpaceX’s Boca Chica site for launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, but the company has dramatically expanded its plans for the site since then. The company is now in the process of upgrading its infrastructure to support launches of the much bigger combination of its Starship capsule and Super Heavy rocket booster. 

But not everyone who lives nearby is happy about the prospect of a larger site footprint and more massive launches. “Accidents and explosions are, unfortunately, just part of the testing procedure. We are concerned that they may create terrible destruction and debris landing on wildlife refuges and on the beach and wetlands,” says Bill Berg, a board member of a local environmental group, Save RGV, referring to the Rio Grande Valley.

With SpaceX’s Starship plans expanding beyond the scope of the FAA’s 2014 environmental review, the agency is now conducting another one. In September, the FAA posted a draft report assessing the risks of Starship’s tests and construction to local ecosystems, as well as the effects on the community from things like road closures. This week its officials are hosting two virtual public hearings, and the agency is also inviting public comment through November 1.

“SpaceX cannot launch the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle until the FAA completes its licensing process, which includes the ongoing environmental review and other safety and financial responsibility requirements. SpaceX would not receive a license if it cannot meet FAA safety regulations,” an agency spokesperson wrote in a statement to WIRED. In other words, the Starship won’t get off the ground if it doesn’t get a passing grade.

SpaceX representatives did not respond to WIRED’s interview requests.

SpaceX refers to the combination of the Super Heavy booster rocket and the Starship spacecraft riding on top simply as “Starship.” Along with NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, Starship will be one of the most massive rockets ever built. It’s almost 400 feet high, can be equipped with up to 37 of SpaceX’s Raptor engines (compared to current prototype tests with just three engines), and it will be able to blast 220,000 pounds of cargo into orbit. NASA plans to deploy Starships (as well as SLS and Orion) on upcoming missions to the moon as part of the Artemis program. In a couple of decades, they could bring some of the first astronauts to Mars. But a lot of tests have to be done first, and the FAA wants to ensure they’re done safely.

The FAA’s assessment of the ecological effects of SpaceX’s launch site comes during a time of increasing attention to a host of space-related environmental concerns, including space debris, light pollution, and carbon emissions. “I do think space has a bit of a PR problem right now. The recent commercial space launches have drawn a lot of attention, and not a lot of it has been positive,” says Krystal Azelton, director of Space Applications Programs at the Secure World Foundation. 

Like Cape Canaveral in Florida—and most other launch sites—SpaceX’s Boca Chica spaceport lies on the coast, which can mitigate potential environmental problems for populated areas and land animals if a rocket explodes over the ocean. Unlike airports, spaceports don’t have launches every day, and the overall likelihood of a disaster and damage from debris is low. “First you have to have a launch (which is rare but getting more frequent), then it has to be a launch failure (something has to go wrong, which will create debris), and that failure has to happen exactly at that part of the launch where debris would fall in an area of concern. Within 30 seconds, it’s out of sight and earshot,” says Mariel Borowitz, a space policy expert at Georgia Tech.

According to the FAA’s most recent draft report, the company’s plans have grown far beyond what they were seven years ago. The report describes not just launches with bigger rockets, but also plans for tank tests, static fire engine tests, expansion of the launch area and solar farm, and construction of additional infrastructure, including a power plant, desalination plant, and two new wells that will pump 40 gallons of groundwater per minute. In addition to the effects of this proposed construction, the FAA will also be assessing the potential for air, water, and noise pollution. Even if infrequent, the volume levels of launches (105 decibels) and sonic booms are high enough to trigger a “startle response” from wildlife within five miles of the launch pad, according to the report. Dozens of threatened and endangered species live in the area, including birds like the piping plover and red knot, and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

The nearby area is “a very diverse, high-quality set of coastal wetlands,” says Christopher Gabler, a board member of Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and an ecologist at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. The region includes tidal flats, dune systems, and salt prairies, which are home to a range of ecosystems and species. The oil and gas industry has ruined wetlands in Texas, Gabler says. “We think what SpaceX is doing is a lot more valuable, meaningful, and interesting than oil and gas exploration, but at the same time, there are these well-established rules for how you treat habitats,” he says. “We want to make sure SpaceX is playing by those rules.” He notes that so far, SpaceX has not published anything indicating that they will mitigate potential effects on the wetlands. However, he says, this summer SpaceX contracted him to inspect vegetation surrounding the launch area as a limited mitigation measure.

The environment includes people, too. The FAA’s draft report states that 527 people live in the region on the American side of the border. Ninety percent of them are people of color and 82 percent are in households where the income is twice the poverty line or less. That makes construction and the potential for ecological hazards environmental justice issues, as well, says Moriba Jah, an aerospace engineer at the University of Texas at Austin, whose research includes space environmentalism.

But Jah, Berg, Gabler and others say they’ve seen no outreach from the company to talk about environmental concerns and other local issues with residents. “SpaceX should at least go out to the community and say, ‘We’re going to have a town hall. This is what we want to do.’ If SpaceX would at least do a good-faith ‘This is us wanting to work with the community,’ I think that would be better. But I have not seen anything even remotely close to that happening,” Jah says.

“They tend to treat the locals as, ‘You should be happy we’re here. …  We’re not going to ask for permission, but we’ll ask for forgiveness later,’” says Rob Nixon, vice chair of the Surfrider Foundation, South Texas Chapter, a group that advocates for public beach access and preservation. For example, by his count, SpaceX has closed Highway 4, the only access to the Boca Chica public beach, more than 300 hours during each of the past two years, exceeding the company’s earlier agreement with the FAA. With its Starship plans, SpaceX anticipates 500 hours of closure annually, according to the new FAA report. 

That said, at Monday’s hearing, the majority of commenters voiced support for the company. “I support SpaceX and their endeavors wholeheartedly as a local, and I’m very excited for their presence here,” said Austin Barnard of Brownsville, Texas. "This is the first time I’ve seen my community fully embrace that there is a new dawn approaching humanity through space exploration and expanding our civilization to another world."

He was followed by another local resident, Jerónimo Reyes-Retana, who lamented the lack of attention to the Mexican communities across the border. “The assessment deliberately chooses not to take into consideration the existence of several Tamaulipas settlements located within the FAA limited region of impact,” he said.

As private companies ramp up their launches, FAA officials will have their work cut out for them, with many environmental reviews to run like the one at Boca Chica. But they are not the only agency that regulates the space industry. While the FAA oversees launches and reentry, the FCC’s charge includes communications in space, the Commerce Department oversees economic activities in space, NASA provides a variety of guidelines, and the Pentagon monitors debris in orbit. 

“What we’re doing right now with spaceflight is very akin to what happened with aviation in the 1920s. It was a patchwork: You had the Post Office and Department of Commerce involved, and there wasn’t really anybody clearly in charge. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s, when commercial aviation started to pick up, when they started to consolidate these services into a single agency or department,” says Wendy Whiteman Cobb, a political scientist at the Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. She believes the federal government might eventually consolidate commercial spaceflight regulations under the ambit of a single agency.

As the FAA’s process plays out, what Berg and his fellow environmental advocates fear the most would be a “finding of no significant impact,” or FONSI (pronounced like the Fonz). That would mean that SpaceX could continue with its Starship plans with no modifications. They’re pushing for a stronger review process through an environmental impact statement, or EIS, which would require a mitigation plan that would limit effects from tests and construction. In July 2020, members of Save RGV and other local organizations, as well as of national groups like Defenders of Wildlife, signed a letter calling for an EIS. They’re making the case for an EIS in their statements at this week’s hearings and in the public comments they’re submitting. 

The next hearing will be Wednesday, October 20, at 5 pm Central time, and instructions for streaming it can be found here. Then the agency’s next step will be to decide whether the environmental effects are small enough to grant a license to SpaceX or to opt for a more rigorous EIS. The FAA will only move toward an EIS if after the hearings and comments the agency determines that the “impacts could not be properly mitigated to less-than-significant levels,” according to the agency’s statement to WIRED.

As the FAA’s process continues, Nixon and other local advocates for wildlife and beaches want SpaceX to make more of an effort to work with the community and limit environmental issues as much as possible. “We’re not trying to drive SpaceX out of town. We just want them to follow the rules and be good neighbors. If they want the respect, they need to show the respect back,” he says.

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