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 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.