Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Congressman says don’t worry about leaving SpaceX

Elon Musk’s answer to a question posed by The Brownsville Herald during Musk’s Feb. 10 presentation at SpaceX’s Starship development site at Boca Chica site, dubbed Starbase, has spawned a degree of anxiety among some local officials that the world’s most successful private rocket company could slip away.

At issue is the Federal Aviation Administration’s ongoing Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of SpaceX’s plans for launching its Super Heavy boosters. The company has been preparing for its first orbital launch of a combined Starship-Super Heavy, from Boca Chica, but first the FAA has to complete the PEA. The release date has been pushed back multiple times, most recently to April 29, the FAA announced recently. The original deadline was Dec. 31, 2021

The PEA could contain a Finding of No Significant Impact in the PEA and the FAA could grant SpaceX the necessary launch license, or the agency could require a much more comprehensive, lengthy Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the company’s plans for Boca Chica. If that happens, no orbital launches will take place at Boca Chica/Starbase anytime soon.

Congressman says don't worry about leaving SpaceX
A Super Heavy booster is seen alongside Starship prototypes Wednesday at SpaceX Starbase rocket production facility near Texas State Highway 4. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Asked by The Brownsville Herald what would happen if the FAA demands an EIS, Musk replied that SpaceX, which has a contract with NASA to develop Starship as the Human Landing System for the space agency’s Artemis moon astronaut program, would be forced “to shift our priorities to Cape (Canaveral)” in Florida.

“Now we do have the alternative of the Cape,” he said. “We actually applied for environmental approval for launching from the Cape a few years ago and received it. So we are actually approved from an environmental standpoint to launch from (launch complex) 39A. I guess our worst-case scenario is that we would be delayed for six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there.”

Those words likely caused heartburn among local leaders betting on SpaceX and the space-related companies it attracts to transform Brownsville into “New Space City” and the region into a hub for the fast-growing private space sector.

“We hope that does not happen,” Brownsville Navigation District Chairman Sergio Tito Lopez recently told a reporter with the Rio Grande Guardian, reflecting the view of SpaceX supporters who don’t want to see the company’s presence diminished here.

But US Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, representing Texas 15th Congressional District, thinks everyone should relax, and does not assume the FAA’s delays indicate impending bad news.

“I wasn’t alarmed of the delay,” he said. “I wasn’t alarmed because I didn’t get a call from them. If they had been freaked out they would have called us right away — SpaceX, their lobbyists. … I mean, this is quite normal.”

Gonzalez said he’s gotten no hint that “everything is not on track,” noting that SpaceX has a well organized army of lobbyists on Capitol Hill advocating for the company with various agencies and committees.

Congressman says don't worry about leaving SpaceX
A view from Texas State Highway 4 of SpaceX Launch Site at Starbase, Texas near Boca Chica Beach. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

As for what a congressman can do to affect the outcome, not a lot, he said, though Gonzalez and US Rep. Filemon Vela did send the FAA a letter months ago requesting that the PEA be expedited.

“They’re all independent agencies, right? We can only be as helpful as we can, but we can talk to the administration about it and be as encouraging as possible,” Gonzalez said.

Even if the first Starship orbital launch does end up blasting off from Florida — SpaceX is building that launch tower at 39A just like the one at Boca Chica — he doesn’t think SpaceX will abandon South Texas.

“They’re not just going to pick up and leave,” Gonzalez said. “They’re pretty entrenched. They’ve made some pretty heavy investments out there, and the federal government has too. … They’ve got like $1.5 billion in federal investments in that project. This is not going to just disappear.”

He described Starship development as a “monumental project” and said there are bound to be hiccups along the way.

“If there were delays he’s not going to stop his operation,” Gonzalez said. “He’ll just do what he has to in Florida and do what he can in Texas until we get to that finish line. But at this point I’m quite optimistic that everything’s going to work out.”

Musk, in response to a follow-up question from The Brownsville Herald at the Feb. 10 presentation, indicated that Boca Chica is indeed part of the company’s long-term plans, even if it’s not necessarily as a spaceport with Starships coming and going.

“The future role of Starbase I think, it’s well suited to be kind of like our advanced (research and development) location, so it’s like where we would try out new designs and new versions of the rocket,” he said. “And then I think probably (Cape Canaveral) would be our sort of main operational launch site.

“And then over time I think there’s going to be floating spaceports like ocean spaceports. We’ve got these two converted oil rigs that are going to be turned into orbital launch sites, and they can be moved around the world.”

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