May 30--The Federal Aviation Administration Thursday gave the private rocket company SpaceX preliminary approval to build a launchpad on an isolated stretch of coastline near Brownsville. The decision allows Texas to become a player in the multibillion-dollar rocket launch business as manned activity at the Johnson Space Center has slowed.
The FAA, in finding that construction of a private spaceport and launching of rockets would not have harmful environmental effects along Boca Chica beach, suggested in its report that the California-based company intends to press ahead with the Brownsville spaceport after considering multiple locations. SpaceX has yet to publicly announce where it intends to build the launch site.
The 392-page report also provided a number of previously undisclosed details about operations at the Texas spaceport, including the possibility of Falcon 9 rocket launches beginning as early as 2016.
"The proposed action is consistent with existing national environmental policies and objectives," the FAA said in the report, which was signed by the FAA's Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, George Nield. That finding means SpaceX has cleared a major regulatory hurdle in locating a spaceport.
Last month, SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said his company intended to build a launchpad near Brownsville and all the company was waiting for was the completion of the environmental impact study on the eight-acre site. "We'll probably have that site active in a couple of years " he said.
Following release of the FAA report, SpaceX spokeswoman Hannah Post said the company hopes to soon finalize a decision on a commercial spaceport.
"Though Brownsville remains a finalist for the development of a commercial orbital launch complex, the decision will not be made until all technical and regulatory due diligence is complete," Post said. "While the timing of some of these critical steps is not within SpaceX's control, we are hopeful that these will be complete in the near future."
If Brownsville is a finalist, it is very likely the only finalist.
The federal report outlines various criteria SpaceX used to identify a site for up to 12 launches a year of its Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy, such as a southerly location and an eastward facing coastline. These rockets will carry mostly commercial payloads, such as satellites, into orbit.
The Falcon 9 already carries supplies to the International Space Station and the Falcon 9 Heavy, under development, would be the most powerful rocket of its kind.
The report also explains why other sites SpaceX has considered for this commercial spaceport were dismissed, including Puerto Rico, locations near Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as well as other locations on the Texas coast, were dismissed.
"SpaceX identified and screened potential sites for commercial launch activities," the report states.
"After extensive evaluation, which included consideration of economic and technological constraints, the proposed location in southern Texas was identified by SpaceX as the only viable location for SpaceX to construct and operate its commercial Falcon vehicles."
SpaceX has pledged to close the nearby Texas beaches for, at most, 180 hours per year for its launches, and it intends to conduct most of those launches between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
The FAA report lists a number of steps the company should take to ensure that it protects the environment in South Texas, including preserving its air quality and water resources, as well as protecting wildlife at the 56.5-acre site.
Among the measures the company is required to take include limiting speed on roads leading to the launch site at 25 mph and posting warning signs that say, "Watch out for ocelots."
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