The Federal Aviation Administration’s decision on SpaceX’s proposal to establish a privately
owned commercial rocket-launching facility in Cameron County is expected soon, according to the California-based space exploration firm.
“FAA is now working toward the completion of the final Environmental Impact Statement and the subsequent issuance of a final Record of Decision,” SpaceX spokeswoman Hannah Post said. “While the timing of these critical steps are not within SpaceX’s control, we are hopeful that these will be complete in the near future.”
For now, Post said: “We look forward to selecting our commercial orbital launch complex this year,” adding in a carefully-worded statement that the Boca Chica site near Brownsville remains a finalist and that a decision would be made when all technical and regulatory due diligence is complete.
“SpaceX would like to thank the South Texas and statewide organizations who have been extremely helpful partners toward this effort,” Post also said.
Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which has nearly 50 launches on its manifest representing about $5 billion in contracts, plans to invest $73,650,000 in the Boca Chica project.
The proposal calls for a commercial orbital complex at the Boca Chica site for the launch of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy orbital rockets and other smaller reusable suborbital vehicles. All Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches would carry commercial payloads, including satellites or experimental payloads, for delivery to the International Space Station. Besides standard payloads, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy could also carry a capsule, such as the SpaceX Dragon capsule.
Already, SpaceX has purchased about 24 acres of land in Cameron County, besides leasing 56.5 acres from private property owners.
Furthermore, SpaceX has been negotiating tax abatements, incentives and operating agreements with communities and economic development organizations in Cameron County and the Rio Grande Valley.
In addition, the consulting firm of Green bergTraurig touted in its June 2013 legislative update that it had been successful in assisting SpaceX with passage of legislation relative to launch activities at Boca Chica Beach. “At this facility SpaceX will launch rockets with satellites, cargo and eventually crew into outer space,” the legislative report states.
Furthermore, Gov. Rick Perry in his 2014 report on The Texas Aerospace & Aviation Industry highlighted legislation passed, which “removes a major hurdle for future coastal launch facilities in Texas, including a potential SpaceX project near Brownsville,” and the appropriation of $15 million to the Spaceport Trust Fund to assist private launch operators with plans to develop spaceport facilities in the state.
SpaceX also planned to apply for access to the Texas Enterprise Fund, Texas Spaceport Trust Fund and the Texas Capital Fund, the Star further found.
Boca Chica’s standing
A close review of the April 2013 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on SpaceX’s proposal addresses Boca Chica’s standing as a potential site.
The Draft EIS points out that after a year that SpaceX spent identifying and screening potential sites throughout the country, sites in Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas were considered, and that the sites in Puerto Rico and Florida were determined not to be feasible.
Several sites in Texas also were reviewed.
After “extensive evaluation,” the Draft EIS states, “the proposed location in southern Texas (Boca Chica Beach) was identified by SpaceX as the only viable location for SpaceX to construct and operate its commercial Falcon vehicles.”
According to the Draft EIS, SpaceX looked at several sites within Puerto Rico, with the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station being the most reasonable from a trajectory standpoint. SpaceX eliminated this alternative from further analysis because it did not meet an evaluation factor, due to the challenge of transporting SpaceX hardware from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico, as well as land use and accessibility limitations.
Within Florida, the Draft EIS further states, SpaceX looked at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and north and south of it. The area north of CCAFS was eliminated because the coast is heavily populated, and higher latitudes are not optimal for performance. “The launch manifest at CCAFS is very crowded (both from SpaceX and other companies). This crowded manifest at CCAFS allows less flexibility for SpaceX’s commercial launch manifest, especially for flights which have tight launch windows,” the Draft EIS states, noting that the requirements for government launches and commercial launches are very different and are handled differently on the launch site.
“Thus, in the same way that there are military and commercial airports, it is efficient and beneficial to both SpaceX and the government to have separate launch sites for its commercial launches and its government launches. SpaceX looked for sites along the coast south of CCAFS. Unfortunately, no land was identified due to the fact that most of Florida’s eastern coast is heavily populated, which would violate flight safety rules. Additionally, Road 1A runs down the entire coast and most potential sites (coastal or inland) would thus overfly this road.
“For these reasons, these locations were not considered to be a viable alternative,” the Draft EIS states.
The factors used in the evaluation included latitude, safety, accessibility, climate and winds, and size.
A launch site in a different location than other ranges that SpaceX utilizes in order to diversify risk and operations also was a factor. A site in an area with limited airspace disturbance and with the flexibility of scheduling launches also was factored in the evaluation.
SpaceX has one former launch site, two current launch sites, and one testing facility, including:
➤ Omelek Island, Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands — for launch of the Falcon 1 vehicle;
➤ Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40, CCAFS, Florida — for launch of the Falcon 9 vehicle;
➤ SLC-4E, Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), California — currently under construction for launch of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles;
➤ McGregor Test Site, McGregor, Texas – for testing and development of SpaceX flight hardware.
NASA in December 2013 also selected SpaceX to begin negotiations on a lease to use and operate Launch Complex 39A at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Amid the conduct of the Draft EIS on the Boca Chica Beach site — that is reaching completion and FAA’s decision after nearly three years — Space Florida and Georgia’s Camden County Joint Development Authority have been courting SpaceX.
Georgia’s Camden County Joint Development Authority contracted a third-party contractor in 2013 to prepare an EIS for a launch site on property that the authority owns in Camden County, Georgia. The proposed launch site is approximately 200 acres and is part of a larger 4,200-acre project site.
The FAA on Dec. 26, 2013 published notice of intent to prepare an EIS for Space Florida’s proposal to develop two launch sites on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in a portion managed as the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge that would be offered to commercial launch providers. The development would be known as the Shiloh Launch Complex.
In a fact sheet that Space Florida provides on the project and when asked how crucial the site is in terms of attracting SpaceX and other commercial launch providers, Space Florida responded that what Texas, Georgia, Puerto Rico and others can offer is a “clean slate” where the requirements of NASA and the military will never impact the commercial launch schedule.
“That cannot be offered at the Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,” Space Florida replied.