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Future of SpaceX Starbase Remains Uncertain

For the last five months, the skies have been clear over Boca Chica, Texas. However, SpaceX has not launched a single rocket there since May, and residents wonder when they will see Elon’s 400 ft tall Starship finally make its debut. But while the normally busy Starbase has gone silent, a legal battle rages between the billionaire space titan and almost everyone else, making SpaceX’s plan in South Texas uncertain.

The story begins in 2014. That was the year SpaceX landed in Boca Chica, a town 20 miles East of Brownsville. The location is optimal for its proximity to the equator, where rockets can take advantage of the Earth’s faster rotation, and the state sweetened the deal even more with a $15 million incentive.

SpaceX received permission from the FAA to launch up to 12 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets per year, but its operations since then have abandoned any pretense of sticking to that agreement. Now, Elon plans to transform Starbase into Earth’s premiere spaceport for Mars, and prototypes of the Starship rocket, which he hopes to use to get there, have completed test launches in place of the Falcon rockets.

In fact, SpaceX hasn’t launched a single Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy at Boca Chica.

The expanded operations brought with them increased environmental impacts. As the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship is over 3.5 times bigger than Falcon Heavy, and its fuel, liquified oxygen and liquid methane is much more volatile.

SpaceX’s facilities are surrounded by the Boca Chica State Park and the South Bay Coastal Preserve to the north, and Boca Chica Beach, enjoyed by many of the town’s residents, to the east. To the south and west lies a national wildlife refuge, home to one of the largest diversities of rare and endangered species in North America, including sea turtles, dolphins, and various birds.

Elon’s attitude, however, has been cavalier.

In 2018, he said, “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool.”

Last March, his theory was put to the test when a Starship prototype lifted off from the launchpad for a short test flight. After ascending about six miles, it rolled onto its side and tumbled back down toward Earth. That was the fourth such explosion in a row, something the Starship team euphemistically termed a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”

The explosion sent debris into the wildlife refuge, which took over three months to clean up. Locals believe other incidents are responsible for wildfires and broken windows, as well.

An hour after the fourth mishap, Elon tweeted that he would donate $20 million to area schools and $10 million to the city of Brownsville.

Aside from test launches, SpaceX has stepped up building construction, hired more employees and contractors, and shut down public areas more often than stipulated in the 2014 agreement with the FAA.

Closures of Boca Chica Beach and Highway 4, the only way in and out of Boca Chica, have caused the most controversy. SpaceX has permission to close down both locations for a maximum of 300 hours per year to accommodate its operations, but multiple nonprofit organizations as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allege it has exceeded 1,000. SpaceX denied the accusation.

After 2018, SpaceX began building storage facilities, a solar farm, and an RV park, which required land then owned by private residents. Under threat of eminent domain, they were enticed by the company to sell their homes to make way for Starbase. 

Technically, most of SpaceX’s expanded operations in Boca Chica are legal. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is what the FAA conducted in 2014, can take up to five years to complete. Elon has secured authorization for his actions through a different, less rigorous process, the Programmatic Environmental Assessment, or PEA, eight of which have been completed since 2014.

However, many believe that Starbase is past due for another EIS.

In June, Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz, working with the Sierra Club and local conservationists, pushed for a new, all-encompassing environmental assessment and urged SpaceX to postpone further launches until it is completed.

Launches have since ceased, but wrangling with the local government has not.

On October 11 Save Rio Grande Valley, or SAVE RGV, a local nonprofit that advocates for environmental justice, filed a lawsuit in the Cameron County state court alleging that the closure of Boca Chica Beach violates the Texas constitution, which guarantees unrestricted access to state public beaches.

The lawsuit claims that, along with the excess hours of road closures, some of which require area residents to vacate their homes, locals only receive a few hour’s notice ahead of time. The 2014 EIS required the public to be notified two weeks prior to closures in tandem with proper approval.

SpaceX is now proposing to increase road closures to up to 500 hours per year with an additional 300 for anomalies.

As a workaround for highway closures, Elon suggested a tunnel be built instead, connecting Boca Chica Beach with South Padre Island. But it would run underneath one of the deepest shipping channels on the Gulf Coast, however, it would require the use of electric vehicles, and would do little to cut down on travel time as local residents would still have to drive around 30 minutes to South Padre Island before entering the proposed tunnel. This project remains a mere idea.

Progress was made in September when the FAA released a draft PEA to the public for comment, which is a prerequisite for SpaceX to obtain a launch license for the Starship Program. The agency then hosted two virtual hearings on the PEA and extended the public comment period until November.

Opinions at the hearings differed starkly. Supporters of the space giant cited its economic benefits to the town and the importance of Starship for human space exploration. Opponents highlighted the environmental harms, which they claim the draft PEA underestimates and called for a new EIS before issuing SpaceX’s launch license. If an EIS were to be pursued, it could take months or even years.

Despite the delays, Elon plows forward. In an October 22 Tweet, he wrote, ”If all goes well, Starship will be ready for its first orbital launch attempt next month, pending regulatory approval.”

SpaceX continues to build its fourth Starship manufacturing facility at Starbase. The largest so far, it is estimated to have the capacity to assemble 3-4 Super Heavy boosters, 4-8 Starships, or 2-3 boosters and 2-3 Starships at once.

Furthermore, the PEA includes plans to drill five natural gas wells, build a desalination plant, and vent methane from launches and production into the atmosphere. Even more notable is the 250-megawatt gas-fired power station that may cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Elon’s most ambitious plan, though, is to found a brand new city out of the launch facilities called Starbase. He officially approached the Cameron County administration with the idea in late February, but it has yet to be incorporated.

In 2019, Elon predicted Starship would be transporting humans into orbit by the end of 2020. Now, he is bogged down by lawsuits, environmental assessments, and mounting public scrutiny. Until something gives way, it looks unclear when or even if the Starship program will continue at Boca Chica. Whether SpaceX will endure the procedural mess, find a way to skirt around the rules, or just pick up and move somewhere else remains to be seen.

Whatever the outcome, SpaceX has invested tons of money in Starbase. The site is likely to function as a production hub at the very least, and a sprawling corporate city at the most.

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