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Critics and supporters come out in force to discuss SpaceX’s plans to launch from South Texas

Virtual FAA town halls this week got heated

SpaceX stacking its Starship spacecraft on top of a Super Heavy booster at the company’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas.
Image: SpaceX

This week, a vibrant mixture of supporters and critics voiced their opinions about SpaceX’s launch operations in Boca Chica, Texas during virtual town halls — input that will be considered as the government decides the company’s future in the state. More than one hundred people took the time to give their thoughts during the meetings on Monday and Wednesday, with opinions ranging from effusive praise of the company to concerns over SpaceX’s impact on the region’s communities and environment.

The lengthy town halls were hosted by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is currently evaluating whether to give SpaceX a license to launch the company’s massive new Starship rocket out of Boca Chica. SpaceX has been building and testing Starship prototypes at its launch facility in Boca Chica for the last four years now, but the company wants permission to launch the vehicle into orbit from the area. Such operations require a license from the FAA in order to ensure that orbital launches won’t harm nearby people or property.

As part of the licensing process, the FAA conducted an environmental review to assess what kind of effects SpaceX’s launches will have on the area. The agency released its findings in what is known as a Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment, or PEA, in September. That release sparked the beginning of a comment period that has been extended until November 1st, where members of the public can give their thoughts on the PEA and bring up any possible issues the FAA might have missed. While the FAA accepts comments in writing, the agency also hosted the town halls this week so that people could give their opinions orally.

SpaceX fans attended the meetings to show their support for the company’s efforts. A common theme among the supporters was that while they did not live in Texas or near Boca Chica, they wished to see SpaceX continue working and launching from the area.

“I don’t live near Texas, I have no stake in this currently,” one commenter said. “But I would just like to say that SpaceX is doing an amazing job in Texas, and that I would like to see this process move a bit faster.”

A rendering of the proposed launch site provided during the FAA meeting.
Image: FAA / SpaceX

“I’m a Georgia resident not representing any organization or special interest group,” another commenter said. “I’m speaking on behalf of my personal capacity as an enthusiastic supporter of SpaceX and a supporter of the human enterprise to push mankind’s boundary beyond Earth.”

Some fans of the company argued that SpaceX is bringing jobs and economic growth to Brownsville, the city next to Boca Chica, but most talked about being inspired by the company and their belief that Starship work must continue so that humanity can become a “multi-planet species” — a common term used by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. SpaceX’s Starship system has yet to carry passengers or reach orbit, but the company hopes to fly people on the vehicle to Mars someday. SpaceX also holds a contract with NASA to develop Starship as a lunar lander that can take astronauts to the surface of the Moon.

Some who identified as residents in the area also expressed support. “I love you, SpaceX and I love you, Elon Musk, too,” one person who recently moved to the area said during her statement. Another woman living in the area noted that she “slowly but surely have watched a rocket rise from the dunes of the beach and it’s been an honor and a privilege to be able to see something magical created out of this world.”

However, plenty of nearby residents were adamantly opposed to SpaceX’s plans. Common complaints revolved around access to the nearby beach. Roads are frequently closed in Boca Chica to accommodate major testing and test launches. “They’re not considering us,” a resident said. “My personal experience having to want to go to the beach and the road is always closed, where they have promised that we will not be affected.”

Others denounced the debris that has fallen on the ground during major test failures. One test launch in March ended in an explosion that sprayed chunks of metal and rocket parts across the terrain surrounding the Boca Chica launch site. Apart from that, noise and rumblings from successful launch tests were also a big point of contention.

“With these smaller rockets, I don’t know how you can say that the noise is in any way acceptable or that the vibrations are in any way acceptable,” one resident argued. “My house shakes with little rockets, and it sounds like the rocket is coming right over my head. And when they lose these heavy rockets, you’re already seeing cracks and certain seismic issues having to do in South Padre Island.”

Supporters had their own interpretations of the intense noise. “Regarding the sonic booms and the noises caused by SpaceX operations, they should be met with a consideration that the shaking of your chest is a positive thing, as SpaceX’s operations not only inspire hope in so many across this nation and the world [but are] propelling humanity on a course of togetherness and prosperity,” one supporter said.

Critics representing environmental groups joined the calls to express concerns about SpaceX construction and operations harming the surrounding wetlands and endangered species, including birds called plovers that nest in the area. Others also worried about the vague nature of SpaceX’s plans to build a natural gas plant in the area to provide methane for the rockets; without details, they say the impacts of a plant are difficult to assess. In response, supporters argued that Cape Canaveral, Florida — home of the US’s busiest spaceport — also operates near a wildlife preserve.

A lot of critics demanded that the FAA conduct a second environmental impact statement, or EIS, which the agency already did for SpaceX’s Boca Chica site in 2014. However, the FAA conducted that review when SpaceX originally planned to fly its smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from the area, with up to 12 planned commercial launches a year. Starship is substantially bigger than SpaceX’s other rockets and still has years of development ahead. The FAA says the company plans to fly Starship up to 20 times a year during flight tests in the early years of development.

The FAA says it will weigh all comments equally, including the ones submitted in writing. After evaluating all of the feedback, the FAA will respond and incorporate them before publishing a final PEA sometime after the comment period closes on November 1st. The agency could release a “finding of no significant impact,” or FONSI, for SpaceX’s launch site, before continuing on with the launch licensing process. Or the FAA could decide to conduct another EIS, a choice that would certainly prolong SpaceX’s plans to conduct an orbital launch from Boca Chica as soon as possible.