Thursday, July 10, 2014

Licensed to Launch: Federal Aviation Administration gives SpaceX the go-ahead

HARLINGEN — The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday approved SpaceX’s proposal to develop the world’s first private, commercial vertical launch site in Cameron County, finding that it advances the commercial space launch industry in the United States.

“It is another positive step forward,” Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said. “This is another important milestone that we have overcome.”

FAA’s Record of Decision is a critical step that paves the way for building a launch site at Boca Chica Beach.

This latest clearance allows Elon Musk’s SpaceX to apply for licenses from the FAA to launch, from the Boca Chica site, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy orbital vertical launch rockets — which also could carry the Dragon capsule — and a variety of smaller, reusable suborbital launch vehicles.

SpaceX spokeswoman Hannah Post said Wednesday that the Boca Chica site “remains a finalist for SpaceX’s development of a commercial orbital launch complex and SpaceX appreciates the FAA’s commitment and work in developing today’s Record of Decision. There remain several criteria that will need to be met before SpaceX makes a decision. We are hopeful that these will be complete in the near future.”

At a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in late April, Musk had said SpaceX is developing a launch pad “on the south coast of Texas near Brownsville. We’re waiting on the final environmental approvals for that. We expect to get those soon.

“We’ll probably have that site active in a couple of years,” Musk said.

In Cameron County, Wednesday’s FAA clearance was embraced with cautious enthusiasm.

Nick Serafy, chairman of the Cameron County Space Port Development Corp., established to facilitate the development of the aerospace industry in Cameron County starting with the SpaceX project, said the FAA clearance is “another huge step forward. I believe there are still some other smaller hurdles to be cleared, but this is a huge, huge step. I’m very happy.”

The proposed launch site sits in Cameron County Commissioner Sofia Benavides’ Precinct 1.

“I am elated,” Benavides said after the Record of Decision was posted. “The whole region stands to gain.”

She extended her appreciation to leaders in communities across Cameron and Hidalgo counties who came together to support the project.

“We have a ways to go, but at least Mr. Musk has gotten the green light from FAA,” Benavides said.

In signing the Record of Decision, Dr. George C. Nield, associated administrator for Commercial Space Exploration, said that the Cameron County site “would allow the greatest development and growth of the U.S. commercial space launch industry.”

Nield said SpaceX considered possible sites in Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas (City of McGregor, Kenedy County, Willacy County, and other properties in Cameron County), but none of the alternative sites sufficiently met SpaceX’s criteria and therefore were not evaluated in detail in the final environmental impact statement.

He said FAA gave the proposal the independent and objective evaluation required by The Council on Environmental Quality in Washington, D.C., which coordinates federal environmental efforts and works closely with agencies and other White House offices in the development of environmental policies and initiatives.

A lengthy process led to the ultimate identification of the preferred alternative and appropriate mitigation measures, he said.

“This process began through the FAA competitive selection of an independent EIS (environmental impact statement) contractor which was financially disinterested in the project outcome, and continued throughout the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process.

“The FAA provided input, advice and expertise throughout the planning and technical analysis, along with an administrative and legal review of the project. From its inception, the FAA has taken a strong leadership role in the environmental evaluation of this project, and has maintained its objectivity,” Nield said.

FAA found that the Cameron County site at Boca Chica Beach was the only preferred site; that there would be impacts, but that these would be mitigated; and that the need for the launch site would meet the statutory direction from Congress to encourage, facilitate and promote commercial space activities by the private sector in order to strengthen and expand U.S. space transportation infrastructure.

Brownsville Economic Development Council Executive Vice President Gilbert Salinas called FAA’s support for the project an “encouraging step in what we are hoping to be a positive final outcome, which could be in a few days or a few months.

“But without this decision, there would be no SpaceX at Boca Chica Beach,” he said.

The Record of Decision explains why FAA approved the proposal, and outlines what SpaceX proposes to do and why. It also identifies actions the FAA and other federal agencies must take, explains the alternatives analyzed, and identifies the measures required for mitigation.

Its issuance concludes the environmental process, completes the National Environmental Policy Act process, and fulfills FAA’s requirements under NEPA.

Space activist Rick N. Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and founder and board chairman of Texas Space Alliance based in Austin, called the developments very exciting.

“If this project leads to a spaceport in South Texas, not only will it mean an influx of new jobs and new money in the area, but the creation of a new culture in terms of education and inspiration. The culture of South Texas will change,” Tumlinson said. He said that this would lead to the development of a community of people whose entire life, living, comes from creating the future.

“Harlingen, Brownsville, and your area are at the right moment in time to be part of a history of the future.”


SpaceX proposes to construct and operate a private launch site to accommodate the number of launches the company has on its launch manifest, FAA noted in the Record of Decision. Furthermore, a private launch site would provide SpaceX with an exclusive site that would allow it to accommodate its launch manifest and meet tight launch windows.

SpaceX rockets carry critical payloads to the International Space Station.

The space exploration firm proposes up to 12 launch operations a year through at least 2025. According to FAA, all Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches would be expected to have payloads, including satellites or experimental payloads, and also could carry the SpaceX Dragon capsule. Most payloads would be commercial; however, some could be Department of Defense and NASA payloads, or a federal contribution to a commercial payload.

All launch trajectories would be to the east, over the Gulf of Mexico.

The site is near the end of State Highway 4, about three miles north of the United States-Mexico border, 17 miles east-northeast of the Brownsville/South Padre Island International Airport, and five miles south of South Padre Island.


In continuing with the proposal, SpaceX would have to meet other requirements and reviews pertaining to safety, insurance and national security, complete an application for a license and obtain numerous permits. After an application is submitted, it could take FAA up to 180 days to approve or deny it.

As part of the licensing process, SpaceX also needs to obtain a Letter of Authorization from the Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center to operate rockets in the proposed airspace before any launches could start.

SpaceX also needs to coordinate with Mexico regarding launch notifications.

Additional permits under other regulations would be required, including but not limited to the following:

• Air quality permit(s) issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for air emission sources.

• Permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for fill of wetlands.

• Permits issued by the Texas General Land Office for coastal construction.

• Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit issued by TCEQ for water pollutant discharges.

• Construction permit issued by Cameron County for construction in the floodplain.

• Utility permits issued by the Texas Department of Transportation for installation of utility lines.

• Permit issued by Cameron County for the design and operation of a septic system.

Additionally, SpaceX, in collaboration with the FAA, is developing several plans for lighting management, facility design, vibration monitoring, hurricanes, security, response to emergencies, and construction, operation and spill pollution.

An unanticipated discoveries plan will be prepared to outline the processes to be followed in the event previously unknown cultural resources or human remains are discovered during construction or operation of the project.


As SpaceX and federal agencies have navigated through the environmental process, the firm consistently has purchased and leased properties at the Boca Chica site from 2012 through June this year.

Most recently, another lot was purchased, bringing the total number of lots SpaceX owns here — through its companies Dogleg Park LLC and The Flats at Mars Crossing LLC — to 111, for a total of almost 44 acres.

The purchases are in addition to 56.5 acres that SpaceX has under lease.

In another recent transaction, The Flats at Mars Crossing transferred ownership of a lot to Dogleg Park.

Through Dogleg, SpaceX now controls about 100 acres in ownership and leaseholds combined.

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