The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SpaceX is continuing preparations for orbital launches of its Starship/Super Heavy vehicle at Boca Chica, Texas, also called “Starbase”, as the FAA continues its environmental review. (credit: SpaceX)

The battle for Boca Chica

Bookmark and Share

Few companies in the space industry are as polarizing as SpaceX, and few projects are as polarizing as its Starship vehicle. To advocates, it is humanity’s best hope to become a multiplanetary species, to use the phase frequently invoked by both the company and its supporters. To others, Starship is a high-risk venture, not just for the company and the space industry but also to the people and environment in the corner of Texas where it is being built.

“I will always be on their side,” one commenter said of SpaceX. “I think their endeavors are absolutely necessary and vital to humanity as a species.”

It took several tries, but SpaceX demonstrated that Starship could take off, fly a low-altitude test flight, land, and remain intact afterwards (see “Build back better,” The Space Review, May 17, 2021.) The next step is to demonstrate that Starship, launched by a booster called Super Heavy, can reach orbit, reenter, and touch down.

To do that, though, SpaceX needs a new FAA launch license. That, in turn, requires an environmental review of the company’s plans to determine the various effects it will have on the environment and whether, and how, they can be mitigated. An earlier environmental assessment, done back when SpaceX proposed using Boca Chica for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, no longer applies to the far larger Starship/Super Heavy.

In September, the FAA released a draft programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) of SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy launch plans. The report itself does not determine if the FAA should license Starship orbital launches but instead assesses the environmental effects of launch activities and whether and how they can be mitigated. The report could lead the FAA to seek what it calls a “more intensive” environmental impact statement.

That report appeared to find little in the way of major obstacles to SpaceX’s plans. Many of the factors included in the assessment, from air and water quality to noise and visual effects, can be mitigated through measures outlined in the report. It did note, though, that it would not make a final decision until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service performed a determination of potential adverse effects on endangered species in the area.

The release of the draft PEA kicked off a public comment period originally scheduled to run until October 18, but extended by the FAA to November 1. While comments can be submitted by email or postal mail, members of the public could also submit comments orally at public hearings, after FAA officials gave an overview of the project.

The pandemic has changed how those public meetings are run. Traditionally they are in-person events, where people line up to make their comments. The FAA, though, conducted these public hearings virtually, via Zoom, allowing people to tune in from home—wherever that may be—and provide their comments on the draft report.

That created interesting dynamics for the two public hearings held last week, running a combined nearly eight hours. While a traditional approach would have attracted primarily only local residents, people both watching and commenting online came from around the country, and in some cases outside the US.

That created two sharply distinct schools of thought about Starship. On one side were supporters of SpaceX who pressed the FAA to move full speed ahead on approving the environmental review as it currently stands and give SpaceX a license for Starship orbital launches from Boca Chica.

Those supporters hailed from around the country and beyond. “I’m totally on the side of SpaceX with this one,” said Brandon McHugh at the first public meeting October 18. “I will always be on their side. I think their endeavors are absolutely necessary and vital to humanity as a species.” He called on the FAA to allow SpaceX “to proceed as much as they need to.”

“The stakes are simply too high not to invest in a thorough EIS,” said Wilcox.

He was hardly the only one with similar views. “I stand with SpaceX and want them to have full approval to do as many launches as they need to make this system actually work,” said Aiden Girlya at the second meeting October 20. “I do not believe they should be limited to a certain amount. They should be able to do as many launches as they need to because we have not seen any environmental impacts so far.”

The majority of those supporters lived far from Brownsville, but some lived in and around the area. The last speaker at the first public meeting was Jessica Tetreau-Kalifa, a Brownsville, Texas, city commissioner. She argued that SpaceX had turned the city from one of the poorest in the country to “one of the most sought-after ZIP codes” to live and work. “I don’t just ask you, I beg you to give them that permit,” she told the FAA.

Those supporters often pointed to Cape Canaveral as an example of how a launch site could co-exist with the environment, with launch sites embedded with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. “Space launch facilities so far seem like they’re good, not bad, for the environment,” said Luc Fueston. “You can pan over on Google Maps to Florida to see the impact over there. It just looks like a sea of green.”

Many local residents, and environmentalists, disagreed. SpaceX’s current activities have already had impacts, they argued. Bill Berg, a member of a nonprofit group called Save RGV that is opposed to the site, noted at the October 20 hearing that the number of nests of piping plovers, a threatened bird species, had dropped in the area from 41 three years ago to one this year.

Sharon Almaguer, who lives in Port Isabel, a town north of Boca Chica, complained that SpaceX activities had shut down access to Boca Chica Beach far more often than allowed under existing agreements. (The Texas state constitution, she and others noted, guarantees open access to beaches.) Past Starship tests created excessive noise as well. “My house shakes with little rockets,” she said, a reference to the series of Starship suborbital tests. Orbital flights, she predicted, will lead to “widespread property damage.”

Many opponents also questioned aspects of the draft PEA, including its treatment of a proposed 250-megawatt power plant as well as transportation and handling of methane fuel for the vehicles. “This is a large oil and gas operation,” said Eric Hound, who has written extensive essays criticizing the environmental review.

Those issue were enough for them to call on the FAA to develop an environmental impact statement, a more rigorous report that will take many months to complete. “The stakes are simply too high not to invest in a thorough EIS,” said Sharon Wilcox, senior Texas representative for Defenders of Wildlife, a wildlife conservation nonprofit, at the October 18 meeting.

The rhetoric on both sides got heated at times. Rebekah Hinojosa, a resident who spoke at both meetings, claimed the FAA was violating the Civil Rights Act by not providing material in Spanish and providing only short notice that translation would be available. “SpaceX is just something that is directly destructive and another example of colonization of our community that we just don’t need,” she said.

Another speaker suggested that locals just deal with it. “The outspoken opponents of SpaceX in Cameron County are rightfully expressing their displeasure with the annoyance of having such a game-changing operation in their backyard. But to make an omelet, we must first break eggs, right?” said Dan Holmes, who called in from Nome, Alaska, thousands of kilometers from both the omelet and the cracked eggshells.

While someone monitoring the hearing tried to keep track of the number of comments for and against SpaceX’s plans, the public comment period is not a vote. FAA will review the comments and use them to evaluate any changes needed to the draft report, and also consider whether an EIS is necessary. That decision could take months.

“We follow the NEPA rules, but it is the longest pole in the tent when it comes to licensing,” Monteith said.

Boca Chica is not the only commercial launch site embroiled in environmental controversy. The proposed Spaceport Camden in Camden County, Georgia, has faced opposition from local residents and environmental groups for years regarding the risks posed by launch failures there. That has caused the FAA to push back a decision on the spaceport’s license for months as it continues to work with stakeholders. That decision is now expected by November 3—unless the date slips again.

“Protecting the environment is critically important,” said Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, during a panel session at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium earlier in the month in Huntsville, Alabama.

“However, I think there’s got to be a balance,” he added. That desire for balance comes from concerns that companies may be forced to look outside the US for launch sites. “I don’t think the Department of Defense or NASA want to launch from another country on a regular basis.”

He said that, unlike recent efforts to streamline overall launch licensing regulations, there is little he can do to revise environmental reviews, which are governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). “We follow the NEPA rules, but it is the longest pole in the tent when it comes to licensing,” he said. The environmental review work can take up five years.

“We’ve got to work through it,” he concluded. “Otherwise, we run the risk of significantly impacting the ability of this industry to move forward and continue to lead the world.”

Finding balance between environmental and industry needs is hardly a new challenge overall. But striking that balance is easier said than done when public views—at least among those willing to speak in online public hearings—are so sharply divided.

Note: we are using a new commenting system, which may require you to create a new account.