FAA Ruling Clears Path for SpaceX Launch site in Texas

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A plan by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to build a privately owned launch site just north of the U.S.-Mexico border near Brownsville, Texas, passed a key environmental review July 9, clearing the firm to submit a formal application to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation’s “Record of Decision” culminates a two-year process designed to vet primarily environmental aspects of building a spaceport on the Gulf of Mexico coast 8 kilometers south of South Padre Island. 

SpaceX appreciates the FAA’s commitment and work in developing today’s Record of Decision (ROD). 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,” SpaceX communications director John Taylor wrote in an email to SpaceNews. 

SpaceX currently launches its Falcon 9 rockets from a leased launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It has a second launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and in April finalized a lease with NASA to take over one of the space shuttle’s launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA plans to use the second shuttle pad to launch its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, currently under development. 

With a backlog of nearly 40 launches, SpaceX has been shopping for a fourth U.S. launch site that can put commercial customers ahead of government launch needs and operations. The FAA determined that SpaceX’s other potential launch sites in Florida, Puerto Rico and elsewhere in Texas would not fulfill the company’s goals. 

“None of the alternative sites sufficiently met SpaceX’s criteria,” the FAA wrote. 

The FAA’s decision came as no surprise to Florida, which has proposed building a commercially operated spaceport north of the shuttle launch pads in an old citrus farming community known as Shiloh. The project faces significant environmental hurdles. 

“Unless we can evolve the state’s spaceport capabilities into the kind of business environment they seek we will spend the next 50 years still celebrating the glories of the past five decades instead of leading the next five,” Frank DiBello, president and chief executive of the Space Florida economic development agency, told the National Space Club Florida Committee on July 8, the day before the FAA posted its Brownsville assessment. 

“I am not mad at SpaceX,” DiBello added. “I also am not mad at [SpaceX Chief Executive] Elon Musk. I am, however, mad as hell that we could not offer him a comparable alternative business site and environment here in time. … That is something that has to change.”

The FAA notice specifies several measures SpaceX needs to take to minimize and mitigate environmental effects of building a launch pad and flying up to 12 Falcon rockets per year. Two of those launches could be Falcon Heavy rockets, a booster that is expected to make its debut flight next year. The Brownsville spaceport also could support Falcon rockets flying themselves back to the launch site, a technology under development. All launch trajectories would be to the east, over the Gulf of Mexico.

Texas has not yet disclosed what economic lures it is offering to woo SpaceX to Brownsville. The spaceport is one of about five major projects being pursued by the Brownsville Economic Development Council. With an estimated capital investment of $80 million to $100 million, the SpaceX spaceport is not even among the largest initiatives, said Gilbert Salinas, council executive vice president. 

“It’s smaller in capital investment, but paramount in its implication,” Salinas said. “We would become a portal to space … [only] four or five other community cities can say that in the U.S.”