by Douglas Messier
Elon Musk’s recent update on the progress of SpaceX’s Super Heavy/Starship launch system didn’t provide much in the way of technical news. However, the billionaire’s presentation did seem to have had its intended political effect.
Musk was clear that if the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t come through with an approval to conduct launches from its Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX will move operations to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Sergio Tito Lopez, chairman of the Brownsville Navigation District (BND) that runs the city’s port, told the Rio Grande Guardian last week that he had been in communications with the region’s two Congressmen, Reps. Filemon Vela and Vicente Gonzalez, about how to pressure the FAA to grant environmental approval for the Boca Chica site so SpaceX doesn’t up and leave.
“We hope that does not happen,” Lopez said, when asked if he was concerned that SpaceX’s rocket testing site could be moved from Boca Chica to Florida.
“He (Musk) has come and he has invested a lot of money into our community. We are thankful for that. Of course, we are not the FAA. We do not make those decisions.”
Asked if the BND Board of commissioners had made its position known to Reps. Vela and Gonzalez, Lopez said: “Actually, right now, we are in talks with both of them. We want them to help. It is a huge economic impact, having SpaceX here. It makes the Rio Grande Valley and in this case Brownsville more lucrative. It gives global attention to our city, which is something we have needed for a long, long, time.”
A reporter put it to Lopez that the City of Brownsville is hoping to attract thousands of tourists once SpaceX starts sending rockets to the Moon and Mars.
“It would be a tremendous loss if we lose that,” Lopez said.
The FAA is expected to issue a programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) on the plan on March 28. The agency has twice delayed release of the document, which was to have completed by the end of December. FAA said it needed more time to respond to more than 19,000 public comments it received after public hearings last year. It’s possible the release could be delayed again.
A PEA that includes a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) would allow the project to go forward. Another possibility is that the FAA will order a much more rigorous environmental impact statement (EIS), which could take years to complete. Musk has said SpaceX will move operations to Florida if an EIS is ordered.
Opponents say the site is not appropriate for launches of the world’s most powerful rocket. Starbase is surrounded by coastal wetlands and a wildlife refuge that provide habitats for endangered and threatened species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service have raised serious questions about whether a FONSI can be issued for the site.
Critics have questioned the FAA’s decision to conduct an environmental assessment of the site for Super Heavy/Starship launches. They say the agency should have conducted a full EIS instead.
The FAA did an EIS prior to approving the Boca Chica site in 2014. However, that statement was based on SpaceX’s plan to launch up to 12 smaller Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy launches annually.
SpaceX subsequently abandoned its plans to launch Falcon rockets from Boca Chica. The company instead used the site to conduct short hops of its Starship prototype. It now wants to launch the much larger Super Heavy/Starship system, a move that led the FAA to decide that an environmental assessment was required.