Saturday, December 3, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

As SpaceX races to expand launch site, concern grows for wildlife habitats in South Texas

SpaceX’s plans to launch into orbit the Starship and Super Heavy booster, the most powerful launch vehicle ever built, hinge on whether the FAA awards the company an environmental permit to accommodate the larger rocket at its Texas launch site known as Starbase.

BOCA CHICA, Texas (CN) — Decades before Elon Musk became a billionaire businessman with his own space transportation company, the science fiction fan with a fascination for Mars just assumed that NASA had a plan to travel to the Red Planet.

But after scouring NASA’s website one day in search of a government-sponsored mission to Mars, he grew upset when he couldn’t find one.

“He thought, ‘this shouldn’t be the case because we should be making plans to go to Mars by now,’” said Erik Seedhouse, an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and author of the 2013 book "SpaceX: Making Commercial Spaceflight a Reality."

NASA never formed a plan to take humans to Mars. But Musk has since adjusted his hopes and dreams and SpaceX, the company he founded almost 20 years ago, has rocketed to the center of the modern-day space race with a long-term plan to colonize Mars by 2050.

“What they’ve done in the speed at which they’ve done it is just incredible,” Seedhouse said in an interview. “Most of his achievements had only previously been achieved by countries and governments and the list of firsts that his company has racked up is quite incredible.”

While Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson usher in a new phase of space tourism, Musk, 50, has his sights set on sending humans to the moon and enabling the colonization of Mars through his company’s Starship spacecraft and newly-developed Super Heavy booster – both still in the testing phase at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, launch site.

But colonizing the solar system doesn’t come without a cost. While SpaceX and Musk press ahead with construction of two 480-foot Starship launch towers, the company and its billionaire founder are facing a renewed round of criticism from environmental advocates in South Texas who worry that the area’s delicate wetlands and diverse wildlife habitats are paying the price.

Awaiting Federal Approval

SpaceX’s plans to expand rocket launches to include the Starship and Super Heavy, the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever built, hinge on whether the Federal Aviation Administration awards the company an environmental permit. The original 2014 environmental study of the Boca Chica operations site known as Starbase only included launches for the much smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX no longer plans to launch from the site.

The Starbase sign is seen in front of SpaceX’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, on July 19, 2021. The letters were installed within the last few months as SpaceX expands the South Texas launch site. (Courthouse News photo/Erik De La Garza)

The federal agency whose jurisdiction includes commercial space transportation has already warned the company in a letter in May that construction of the Super Heavy launch tower “may complicate the ongoing environmental review process.”

“The FAA has a new environmental review underway of SpaceX’s proposed Super Heavy rocket and tower,” the agency said in a statement to Courthouse News. “The company is building the tower at its own risk.”

But SpaceX does hold a license to conduct short test flights of Starship prototypes, and at 7:05 p.m. on July 19, three engines attached to the company’s Super Heavy booster briefly roared to life for what is known as a static fire test.

The test, where the rocket booster fires up its engines at full throttle but remains stationary on the space pad, engulfed the site in flames and rocket smoke that filled the nearby beach and lingered in the coastal air of the remote South Texas beach town for over an hour as onlookers sat in their vehicles staring at the stainless steel behemoth.

The Super Heavy booster engines – referred to as raptors – ignited for just six seconds, but marked the first time that SpaceX lit up the massive first-of-its-kind rocket booster that the company is planning to attach under its Starship rocket and launch into orbit sometime this year, pending federal approval.

ADVERTISEMENT
Construction of a Starship integration tower is seen looming over the wetlands of Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. SpaceX has transformed the once-sleepy retirement community into an active space pad and mecca for space enthusiasts. (Courthouse News photo/Erik De La Garza)

While space enthusiasts, and Musk himself, cheered the successful static fire test as a sign that the Starship launch vehicle is nearing completion – “First test duration firing of 3 Raptors on Super Heavy Booster!” Musk tweeted minutes after the test – others weren’t so enthusiastic.

“Part of the problem is the area doesn’t grow,” said David Newstead, director of the coastal bird program for the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program. “The area that they have expanded and covered over with their development is what has grown and the area, arguably, can’t support that.”

Newstead – who, with his team of conservation biologists, has been monitoring the nesting activities of coastal birds including the Wilson’s Plover, Snowy Plover and Least Tern since 2017 – said SpaceX’s activities extend far beyond their property. Not only are frequent road closures while SpaceX conducts rocket testing activities complicating their biological monitoring, but Newstead says his team over the last two years has also seen decreased nesting of the shorebird species they follow.

“And that pattern of decreased nesting is especially pronounced in the vicinity of the launch site and control center around SpaceX’s facility, so in the refuge and state park land,” he said.

The closure of Highway 4, the only road leading in and out of the launch site that remains the only way to access the public Boca Chica beach, is the subject of headaches for some locals, whose plans rest on whether SpaceX will close the highway and for how long.

On the Monday of the static fire test, Cameron County officials advised residents that the highway could be closed sometime between noon and 10 p.m. By 4:30 that afternoon, subscribers to the county’s notification system received a text message alerting them that Highway 4 had been closed for the engine test. It didn’t reopen until just before 9 p.m.

Two Starship prototypes loom in the background as a man waters the lawn of a home in Boca Chica, Texas. (Courthouse News photo/Erik De La Garza)

Inside the nearby Boca Chica Village neighborhood, residents who have remained in the community despite the towering rockets in their backyard and the buzzing of SpaceX employees, were advised by the company in a letter posted to their doors to “consider temporarily vacating yourself, other occupants, and pets, from the area during space flight activities.”

“There is a risk that a malfunction of the SpaceX vehicle during these activities will create an overpressure event that can break windows. At a minimum, you must exit your home or structure and be outside of any building on your property when you hear the police sirens, which will be activated at the time of the space flight activity, to avoid or minimize the risk of injury,” the letter stated.

'Nothing Quite Like Boca Chica'

Designed as a reusable transportation system to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars and other cosmic destinations, SpaceX has billed the Starship spacecraft as a game-changer for space transportation with the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tons into space. When stacked together for launch, the Starship and Super Heavy will stand at nearly 400 feet tall.

But out of the five Starship prototypes that have already launched from the Boca Chica launch site, only one in May has proved successful.

The first two prototype rockets crashed into the landing pad, a third burst apart minutes after takeoff, and a fourth test launch on March 30 resulted in a midair explosion that sent large pieces of debris into the nearby beach and protected grounds for shorebirds and other wildlife species.

“All of that debris went for a mile or so, some small pieces went further than that,” Newstead said, adding that noise and vibrations associated with rocket launches could also have harmful effects on birds with notoriously strong, but very porous bones. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“Launches are not only loud but there’s a pressure associated with it,” he said. “People can feel it when they’re doing a single-engine rocket test, you can feel the ground rumble, but you can imagine how loud these things are for birds.”

South Texas’ Boca Chica Beach is seen on July 20, 2021. The beach is a nesting ground for multiple species of turtles, including the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. (Courthouse News photo/Erik De La Garza)

There are over 20,000 acres of federally protected land surrounding SpaceX’s Boca Chica site that serve as a national wildlife refuge for at least 18 threatened and endangered species, including birds, wild cats and sea turtles such as the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. The region also draws historical value as the scene of the battle of Palmito Ranch in 1865, the last land battle of the Civil War.

“These flats are apparently regarded by some and apparently in the eyes of some, appear to be some sort of a wasteland but it’s a tremendously productive ecosystem and extraordinarily sensitive as well,” Newstead said. “It’s a really important area, there’s nothing quite like Boca Chica and the South Bay area.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, along with local environmental groups like Save RGV and the Lower Rio Grande Valley chapter of the Sierra Club, have each expressed concern with SpaceX’s plans to expand its activities at Boca Chica.

But the idea of interplanetary travel via the largest rocket known to mankind is too thrilling for some to resist.

“That thing is going to fucking Mars,” said Anthony Gomez, 38, a managing partner at the RV and camping spot Rocket Ranch, located along the Rio Grande River about 8 miles from SpaceX’s launch site.

Open to the public since January 2020, Rocket Ranch sits along the Rio Grande River with views into Mexico and is one of the only spots in Boca Chica where visitors can stay overnight. The unique location, appropriate rocket-themed decor and affordable rentals has given the ranch the ability to host space tourists from as far away as Australia and, like SpaceX, has plans to grow.

Gomez said they already offer pontoon rides along the river that straddles the Texas/Mexico border for guests anxious to see a rocket launch from a different perspective, and are just about done with construction of a new observation deck that offers an elevated view of launches.

“Nobody else is going to have a nicer launch site than us, this is the place,” Gomez said, adding that the ranch would plan some type of orbital party or festival to coincide with Starship launches.

Construction crews work on SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy Orbital Launch Pad in Boca Chica, Texas, on July 20, 2021. (Courthouse News photo/Erik De La Garza)

Musk and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell had expressed hope to conduct the first orbital flight of the Starship system in July, but that now appears unlikely to occur for at least the next few months.

“It’s a huge engineering challenge to do that with such a large payload, but if anybody is going to do it it’s going to be SpaceX, I’m sorry to say,” Seedhouse, the professor, said. “It’s beat, so far, so many things that people said were impossible.”

But Musk’s real-life sci-fi plan for Martian inhabitation could be delayed, or scuttled all together, without FAA approval and a permit to launch.

And, Seedhouse warned, when Starships start being launched on a regular basis, “because that is the plan, then those Boca Chica residents are going to have to be a bit further back and I’m not sure how they’re going to deal with that.”

Follow Erik De La Garza on Twitter

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...