(CN) — Brownsville, Texas: gateway to Mars? Don’t put it past SpaceX founder Elon Musk. But in its rush toward space travel, environmentalists say the company is testing rockets beyond the scope of its federal permit at its launch site just outside the city.
Since Musk started SpaceX in 2002, the company has flown 20 resupply missions to the International Space Station for NASA. It also broke new ground on May 30, becoming the first commercial space company to fly astronauts to the station with its rocket and spacecraft.
The ballyhoo surrounding that launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida overshadowed an explosion during ground tests of a heavy-lift rocket — a prototype of a rocket with which Musk hopes to send the first humans to Mars by 2024 — the day before at SpaceX’s spaceport at the southern tip of Texas.
The SpaceX site sits on flat tidal plains a few miles north of where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico, next to a national wildlife refuge frequented by endangered turtles and tropical cats.
In a July 3 letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, a coalition of environmental groups said the May blast is just the latest in a series of explosions and mishaps there, including a flight test in July 2019 that set off a 100-acre brush fire.
The groups are calling on the FAA to conduct a new environmental impact study, with input from the public, and redo its permit of SpaceX’s Texas operations because the company has changed its focus from launching its smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy 9 rockets, which it uses for NASA cargo launches to the International Space Station, to testing out its Super Heavy booster rocket.
The Super Heavy rocket is designed to be the first stage of SpaceX’s Starship interplanetary spacecraft. Stacked together they will stand 390 feet and use 10.1 million pounds of liquid methane and liquid oxygen fuel.
“Our main point here is that when they presented this project in 2012, they got approval for a certain kind of rocket,” Paul Sanchez-Navarro of Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington nonprofit, said in an interview.
“All of those environmental studies are based on those kinds of rockets. Now they are going to use bigger rockets. So we’re saying they need to redo those studies because the environmental impact from a larger rocket may be different,” he added.
SpaceX’s permit allows 12 launches of its Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets per year.
But Musk seems to brush off such terrestrial concerns. He has reportedly said he’d like to see as many as three launches a day from Boca Chica, just outside of Brownsville.
The environmental groups accuse the FAA of rubber-stamping SpaceX’s evolving plans and say the agency is imperiling wildlife because it is not holding SpaceX to requirements in its current permit.
The FAA said Friday SpaceX has applied for an experimental permit to launch bigger rockets at the site. And because the company believes the changes will have no significant environmental impacts, or they can be mitigated, it has exercised its right to do an environmental assessment with oversight from the FAA.
“However, all applicants run the potential risk that the further review may uncover significant impacts that cannot be mitigated. In those cases, the FAA must conduct an [environmental impact study],” the agency said in a statement.
The company is supposed to work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to protect habitat for the ocelot, a small endangered tropical cat that hunts lizards, birds and rodents in low-lying shrubs and bushes.
SpaceX is not doing the ocelot work, according to the environmentalists. But the FAA says SpaceX is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service on how best to monitor the cats.
Shari Wilcox, a Defenders of Wildlife wild cat expert, said there are 13 ocelots living in the area.
“They look like little leopards. And they are really a source of local pride that we have such a unique tropical cat that lives as far north as Texas,” she said.
This year, six critically endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles have nested at Boca Chica Beach, the beach nearest SpaceX’s site, and no evaluation has been done about what effect the bigger rockets will have on the turtles, Sanchez-Navarro said.
Ocelots and turtles are just part of the area’s rich biodiversity. More than 400 bird species have been identified in the area, most of them migratory, and 250 butterfly species also migrate through.
“The reason why the U.S. government invested in buying all this land to make [the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge] is because it recognized the importance of that part of Texas for all these species,” Sanchez-Navarro said. “They go down to Mexico or Central America during the winter and then they go all the way up to Canada in the summer. And Texas is really important to them as a stopover place.”
SpaceX’s permit only allows it to close access to Boca Chica Beach for up to 180 hours a year to keep the public out of harm’s way while it is testing its rockets.
“In just the past three months of this year closures have exceeded 225 hours, often with confusing and inadequate prior notifications and last-minute changes and revocations,” the environmental groups wrote in their letter to the FAA.
For Sanchez-Navarro, that also raises alarm bells.
“If we can’t trust they are complying with beach access closures, how do we know they are complying with the environmental side of things?” he said in an interview.
In 2013, before SpaceX received government approval to build its spaceport, Musk reportedly told then-Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez, “One day, you are going to read that a man left Brownsville and went to Mars.”
Despite the environmental issues, SpaceX has provided a boost to the local economy.
As of Friday, SpaceX is listing 87 job openings and 33 temporary positions on its website for Boca Chica, seeking to hire cooks for a private onsite restaurant, crane operators, machinists, software and civil and welding engineers, pipe fitters, welders and an environmental health and safety engineer, who would be in charge of ensuring compliance with local, state and federal regulations.
Ramiro Gonzalez, Brownsville’s director of government and community relations, said he owns a few rental units in the city, population 183,000. He’s recently started getting inquiries from people moving in to work for SpaceX, and he’s heard from realtor friends that SpaceX hires are buying homes.
“It puts us on the map where people look towards Brownsville when there is going to be a test,” Gonzalez said. “There’s definitely people following from all over the world what’s happening at Boca Chica. And when there is something major that’s announced there are people who travel here and stay for days.”
SpaceX did not respond to emailed questions for this story.
Save RGV, Frontera Audubon, Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club also signed the letter to the FAA.