Locals and environmental activists near SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility have long criticized the company’s impact on parkland, and its frequent closures of beaches in the area. Now the FAA says SpaceX must make a long list of changes to the way it operates in South Texas. The order derails – at least for now – the company’s plans to launch the largest rocket in the world from Boca Chica.
Texas Public Radio’s Gaige Davila spoke with Texas Standard about the FAA orders and what activist and SpaceX founderElon Musk are saying about it them.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit more about the SpaceX launch and expansion plans and what was it that Elon Musk was planning that needed new approval from the Federal Aviation Administration?
Gaige Davila: The launch would be for their Starship Super Heavy prototype, which is the rocket that is supposed to take people to Mars. It’s larger than NASA’s Saturn V rocket, which was the first rocket that took humans to the moon in the Apollo 11 mission. And the expansion plans, as I understand them now, are to increase their facility’s space by about 20 acres. And a lot of that planned infrastructure for that expansion has been scrapped, however, presumably because they had too many things that needed regulatory approval. And SpaceX was very much seeking this most recent approval from the FAA. But their approval was born in the fact that this was a launch that was much bigger than the launches that they’ve done previously.
I know why you would need approval from the FAA for some of these changes, but it sounds like a lot of the objections have been over what the EPA – the Environmental Protection Agency – would normally police. Is it the environmental impact that the FAA is concerned primarily about here?
That’s what it seems like. Of course, they have approved the environmental assessment of these sites and the expansion plans, tentatively. They have over 75 changes that they need to make before a satisfy the FAA requirements. But a lot of it did have to do with the fact that it was so readily apparent that Space X was affecting the environment in which they lay.
Tell us a little bit about what’s on that list of changes.
In a purely procedural sense, they need to have more advance notice of the launches. It can’t just be, you know, a couple of days before, or how they have done in the past. It needs to be a very clear indication that they will launch on this date. And I’m not sure of the metrics of how long, but it just has to be a lot further in time than they have been recently doing.
Then, when it comes to the beach closures, they’re not allowed [to close] on nearly 20 holidays. SpaceX can now only close access to Boca Chica for five weekends a year, and the FAA is now requiring real time notice of closures. It can’t just be posted in the morning, and they might do it later. I have noticed that Cameron County is no longer using the words ‘closure.’ They’re using the word ‘delay.’ but that does not change the fact that the road is going to be closed when it comes to an environmental sense. Just briefly, they have to notify neighboring communities such as Port Isabel, South Padre Island and Brownsville of launches because of engine noise or sonic booms, they’ve got to remove launch debris from the habitats that surround the facility, If they spread out over those habitats. And they must decrease lighting at their launch sites. So it’s not to disturb the sea turtles that may be nesting in the area.
Do locals and activists feel they feel vindicated by these decisions from the FAA?
I would say they have been addressed, but I don’t know if they have been satisfactory, because it’s really a question on whether SpaceX will actually follow through with these in the time it takes to build and launch rockets. If that ever happens, will they continue doing these efforts consistently, even if it takes two years to launch a rocket? And it’s important to note that these are mitigation efforts made after the fact, because wildlife researchers and federal agencies have already documented that SpaceX has affected the habitat irreparably. This site is also built on sacred sites of the Comecrudo tribe of Texas, and that damage cannot be undone.
Elon Musk is often outspoken, especially on Twitter. Has he responded in any way to the FAA’s directives?
Sure. His initial reactions were saying that Starship would be ready to launch as soon as next month, with a second Starship ready to fly in August and every month after that. But more poignantly, he made a comment on how. SpaceX hasn’t seen ocelots around the facility, only other non-endangered animals via trail cameras that SpaceX has set up. And it’s as if to dismiss some of the requirements the FAA has bestowed upon them. And people were quick to point out that ocelots, of which there are fewer than 60 in South Texas, are shy animals, and will stay away from places with lots of activity. So it’s almost a self-admission to another way. Space X is affecting the fauna of a sensitive environment.