SpaceX can launch, but must solve environmental problems

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Launching a massive SpaceX rocket and spacecraft from South Texas won’t cause significant environmental consequences, federal regulators have determined, removing a major hurdle for the company.

SpaceX still has work to do — more than 75 actions to mitigate impacts from the Super Heavy booster and Starship, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which led the environmental review. But Monday’s long-awaited decision brings SpaceX “one step closer to Starship’s first orbital flight test,” as the company said on Twitter.

SpaceX is both loved and mourned in the Rio Grande Valley. Some praise billionaire Elon Musk and his commercial space company for creating well-paying jobs and inspiring local students. Others fear losing the culture of the border community and damaging a nearby wildlife refuge and state park.

As such, Monday’s announcement drew mixed reactions from local officials, SpaceX fans and environmental groups.

“It is very clear that there is immense complexity in the environmental impacts that a company such as SpaceX could have in Brownsville,” Josh Mejia, executive director of Brownsville Community Improvement Corp., said in an email. “However, the company has proven through this announcement that it is capable of managing mitigation alongside all parties involved. Accordingly, we look forward to the activities that will take place at Starbase and all the innovative developments that will take place. place in Brownsville.

SpaceX is developing its Super Heavy rocket and Starship spacecraft in Boca Chica, an unincorporated area outside of Brownsville that SpaceX has dubbed Starbase. These vehicles are being developed to help NASA astronauts land on the moon and then transport humanity to Mars.

The company has conducted high-altitude test flights with prototype Starships — several have exploded or crashed — but it has yet to be launched into orbit from southern Texas. Still, the completed environmental review doesn’t mean that launch is imminent. SpaceX has technical work to complete before liftoff, and the FAA still requires public safety, national security and other analyzes before deciding whether to grant a commercial launch license.

“There will be all kinds of people in the chat: ‘When is the next launch? Does it launch tomorrow? Will it launch next week? said Louis Balderas, who operates YouTube channel LabPadre streaming 24/7 live video of SpaceX operations in South Texas. “Personally, I’m still not holding my breath. They still have a lot to do. »

Balderas, who monitors the company’s development daily, believes SpaceX could launch into orbit in late September or early October.

The true timeline is anyone’s guess, but a launch is definitely closer now that the FAA has issued its decision.

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SpaceX had to conduct this environmental review because its plans have changed so much since its previous environmental review. The company originally planned to launch the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from southern Texas. The Super Heavy and Starship combined will be much larger. The juggernaut could be about 400 feet tall, or about 37 stories. Super Heavy could have up to 37 engines and Starship could have up to six engines, according to the environmental study.

The company’s first environmental review for South Texas, completed in 2014, was a more rigorous environmental impact statement. This time, SpaceX conducted a less rigorous environmental assessment. This assessment could have resulted in the FAA issuing a “finding of no significant impact” or a “attenuated finding of no significant impact” – the two options allowing SpaceX to move forward with the application. permits or licenses needed to launch – or it could have led to a more in-depth environmental impact statement.

After several delays in releasing its decision, the FAA determined on Monday that launching Super Heavy and Starship into orbit “would not result in significant environmental consequences,” and it issued a mixed conclusion with no significant impact with more than 75 actions SpaceX must take to mitigate the impacts it will have in Boca Chica.

Save RGV, a community-based nonprofit whose mission is to protect wild and natural lands in eastern Cameron County, was among environmental groups appalled that SpaceX was not required to conduct an environmental impact statement. more rigorous.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling how this could even come out,” said Save RGV board member Mary Angela Branch. “A full environmental impact statement must be made. I think it’s the right thing to do for people, the earth and the environment.

As part of its mitigation measures, SpaceX must employ a qualified biologist to conduct continuous monitoring of the vegetation and wildlife in the area. He must work with state or federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats, and he must adjust launch complex lighting to minimize impact on wildlife.

SpaceX will also have to provide more advanced launch notice to reduce the length of Texas 4’s shutdown. This has become an especially contentious issue because the state highway, the only road to the SpaceX facility, also leads to residential properties and a public beach. Its frequent closures disrupt local residents, and the environmental assessment indicates an increase in the number of hours the road could be closed.

SpaceX predicts that normal operations will require up to 500 hours of road closures per year. What he calls “abnormalities” – such as explosions – would require up to 300 additional hours of road closures. However, FAA mitigation requirements state that closures will not be permitted on the 18 identified holidays and that weekend restrictions will be limited to a maximum of five weekends per year. The FAA will also require real-time notifications when road closures begin, end, or are reversed.

Also as part of the environmental review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that SpaceX launches are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of federally listed species or adversely alter designated critical habitat. But conservationists consider the area to be biologically diverse and have noted the sensitivity of the surrounding mudflats which provide food for dozens of species of shorebirds. The Boca Chica area has one of the largest winter concentrations of the Piping Plover, a shorebird listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“I hope for the sake of everyone – everyone who walks, crawls, slides, swims and stands up here – that this is the right decision and that they will be held accountable,” Branch said. “I don’t think it’s (the right decision), and neither does Save RGV. And if they go ahead with issuing this license, let’s just see where the tokens fall.

Others viewed Monday’s announcement as a major step that will move the city forward. SpaceX is already one of the largest employers in Brownsville, Mejia said, along with the Brownsville Community Improvement Corp., and it has surpassed all other private employers in Cameron County.

“Over the past five years, our community has seen rapid growth in sales tax collection, property appraisals, infrastructure improvements and job creation,” Mejia said. “SpaceX has been a big reason for this growth and we should now expect another cycle of economic activity that stems directly from this announcement. Our community and stakeholders will manage growth responsibly to provide equitable opportunities to the community.”

An enthusiastic buzz also started on Twitter, Facebook and LabPadre’s YouTube chat, Balderas said.

“Lots of happy face emojis, of course,” he said.

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