The FAA has given its environmental approval for a proposed Texas launch site for SpaceX, one of the last milestones before the company makes a decision on a new commercial launch facility.
The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) issued Wednesday its “Record of Decision” on the proposed launch site on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, east of Brownsville and just north of the Mexican border. The decision came at the end of a long environmental impact assessment of the proposed facility, which SpaceX would use for commercial launches of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles. The FAA had released the final environmental impact statement (EIS) report in late May.
The FAA concluded that the environmental assessment supported what the report called the “selected action,” namely, the construction of the spaceport. “I find that the Selected Action described in this Record of Decision is reasonably supported,” concluded George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, in a statement he signed at the end of the memo.
The memo does lay out a number of steps SpaceX will have to take in order to minimize the environmental impact of the proposed facility, which would support up to a dozen launches per year, up to two of which would be of the Falcon Heavy. These include a number of “reasonable and prudent measures” to protect local wildlife, steps to prevent pollution of the site by hazardous materials, protection of several historical sites in the area, and noise mitigation measures. For example, in the case of noise mitigation, “SpaceX will make hearing protection devices available to residents to reduce noise levels below 115 dBA at distances up to approximately 2.1 miles for the Falcon Heavy.”
The decision has bene widely seen as the final milestone before SpaceX formally announces its plans to develop the launch site in Brownsville. A SpaceX spokesperson told the Rio Grande Valley Morning Star newspaper that no decision has been made yet, though. “There remain several criteria that will need to be met before SpaceX makes a decision,” Hannah Post told the newspaper. “We are hopeful that these will be complete in the near future.”
While Post said that the Brownsville site was “a finalist” for that commercial launch site, company officials have made in clear in recent statements that it was their preferred site. At the May 29 rollout of the company’s Dragon V2 crew vehicle, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk mentioned the environmental impact statement final report that had just been released. “We’re pretty excited about building that out,” he said of the Brownsville site.
In fact, in the Record of Decision, SpaceX all but indicated they were interested in only the Brownsville site. “SpaceX considered sites in Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas (City of McGregor, Kenedy County, Willacy County, and other properties in Cameron County),” the Record of Decision memo states. “None of the alternative sites sufficiently met SpaceX’s criteria; therefore, they were not evaluated in detail in the EIS.”
Earlier this week, a leading Florida official all but conceded that SpaceX would not choose a proposed commercial launch site near the Kennedy Space Center. Frank DiBello, the CEO of Space Florida, said Tuesday he expected SpaceX to announce it had decided on Brownsville site in the next week or two. “I am mad as hell, however, that we could not offer him a comparable alternative business site and environment here in time,” he said in a luncheon speech, as reported by Florida Today.