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Regulators coming after SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility and Starship

Capitalism in space? New FAA documents suggest that government regulators are not happy with the rapid and spectacular development by SpaceX of its Super Heavy/Starship rocket at Boca Chica, Texas, and are eager to impose restrictions and delays.

The issue revolves around revisions to SpaceX’s original FAA approval for its work at Boca Chica because the company has switched from flying Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to developing and flying Starship and Super Heavy. While the FAA has been cooperative in issuing the necessary revisions, other agencies have raised red flags.

But the most important document of the bunch is the written reevaluation signed by the FAA on May 22. The file spans 26 pages, was required for SpaceX to receive its suborbital launch license from the FAA on May 28, and incorporates concerns from state and federal environmental agencies.

In the reevaluation, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service took issue with several aspects of SpaceX’s plans and ongoing activities. Those criticisms targeted the “fluid nature” of the company’s construction projects, excessive road closures to Boca Chica Beach (which Brownsville locals prize), around-the-clock work that may affect nocturnal threatened or endangered species, prototype explosions, and sprawling wildfires the company has triggered.

The FAA responded to each concern in the document, ultimately determining “there are no significant environmental changes, and that all pertinent conditions and requirements of the prior approval have been met or will be met” with SpaceX’s suborbital test-flight plans.

However, SpaceX does not yet have the FAA’s go-ahead to launch any Starships to orbit from Boca Chica.

In its replies to concerns noted by other agencies — some of which call for a new EIS [environmental impact statement], which could take years to complete (an eternity in Musk time) — the agency repeatedly noted it is working with SpaceX to draft an “environmental review” of those plans.

Should Joe Biden and the power-hungry and controlling Democrats take control of the executive branch of the federal government, expect the FAA’s desire to help SpaceX to quickly end.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

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  • janyuary

    Robert, sorry to burst your bubble, you’ve only got it half right. Republicans and conservatives are just as likely as Democrats and liberals to “understand the necessity for EIRs” in such cases. What’s what you say, no way? Really????? Look into it. For starters … The EPA was created under a Republican administration. There are oodles and oodles of Republicans who buy hook line and sinker into the environmentalist agenda, right along with Democrats.

    Before you go attributing certain flaws exclusively to only one political party, make sure it’s not just wishful thinking. Believe me I wish solving this was as easy as stopping voting for Democrats and starting voting for Republicans but … that is only make believe.

    Republicans as as much responsible for getting us into this mess as Democrats, so expecting a solution from them is as realistic as expecting a solution from Democrats. The only real solution is to walk away from both parties and to go on offense. But that takes a lot more guts than most people have. The Founders had those kind of guts.

  • eddie willers

    Should Joe Biden and the power-hungry and controlling Democrats take control of the executive branch of the federal government, expect the FAA’s desire to help SpaceX to quickly end.

    Or be attached to putting Hunter on the board and 10% for the Big Guy.

  • ace

    If regulatory delays start to impact “Musk Time”, what’s to stop him setting up a launch facility further south in a more co-operative country?

    Once the rockets are perfected, he doesn’t have to keep firing them off at will, much like the current Falcon series. He can manufacture them there (the Raptor engines are built elsewhere already) and barge them South. Perfecting the Teslas allowed him to start sprouting GigaFactories all over the place, wherever local governments showed an interest.

    Someone, somewhere would welcome the business and the employment, and SpaceX gets the benefit of some more rotational energy courtesy of being closer to the Equator.

  • I used to like reading your updates, but now you have shown political bias forget it.
    Shame really.

  • mkent

    SpaceX has approval to launch a Falcon 9 from Boca Chica 12 times a year. That’s it. Did anyone — least of all Musk — really think that they could just start launching Super Heavies 10 times a day without issue?

    If regulatory delays start to impact “Musk Time”, what’s to stop him setting up a launch facility further south in a more co-operative country?

    The Export Administration Act and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, to start with. SpaceX isn’t sending anything outside of the country without approval of the federal government.

  • LocalFluff

    Elon Musk is now the second richest man in the world. He’s a Hank Reardon type who will prevail. Real men solve the problem, without dropping their cigar:

    Hahaha, you’ll be murdered in the socialists’ concentration camps like 100,000,000 before you. Congratulations!

  • David K

    There were some issues with earlier raptor engines lighting things on fire after all, and some people still live a bit too close for comfort.

    I expect those issues to be sorted out soon, but if not they can always put it on a ship to its launch site.

    And if this next administration totally stops SpaceX from doing launches for the next 4 years, they can do tons of development on everything from engines to space boots, then hit the ground running during the next administration.

  • Spectrum Shift

    What’s the FAA got to do with anything above 80 thousand feet anyway?

  • wayne

    Good stuff.

  • Michael G. Gallagher

    I knew they would come for Elon eventually. Fallen Angel scenario here we come.

  • Michael G. Gallagher

    Why couldn’t he launch from the Cape instead, where the approvals are already in place?

  • Rusty Hooke

    Lkj lied:

    “I used to like reading your updates, but now you have shown political bias forget it.
    Shame really.”

    Robert has always been politically biased towards the side of freedom. You never could have enjoyed his many prior years of posting the exact same “bias”.

  • Brendan

    They will try to cut off any escape from the totalitarian hell they are trying to build here.

    Not surprising they will go after SpaceX.

    But there are a lot of islands that Musk can buy, and maybe he needs to.

  • Rodney

    If you look at pictures of the Boca Chica Site, there is a huge amount of activity going on. All those people running around, emptying waste baskets, building infrastructure and rocket ships get paid. There is a lot of jobs and a lot of money flowing through Brownsville now. Brownsville’s Congressman is a Democrat and with the next Congress balanced almost on a knife edge, I expect one phone call from an irate Congressman will have the FAA dancing like the appropriate marionettes.

  • mkent

    But there are a lot of islands that Musk can buy, and maybe he needs to.

    On which he will be subject to the same laws and regulations as he is in Boca Chica.

  • Mike Borgelt

    “But there are a lot of islands that Musk can buy, and maybe he needs to.”

    Fernando de Norohna. Take out Brazilian citizenship. (h/t Michael F. Flynn)

  • Brendan

    On which he will be subject to the same laws and regulations as he is in Boca Chica.

    Really? I worked with EPA for 10 years in the 90s. A less science based organization you will never encounter

    And US law and Regulation are not binding in foreign countries. At least not yet.

    Although that is the Deep State Imperium’s hope

  • Zimriel

    He can move further west where there is less brush to burn, no beaches, and more Republicans. If Northern New Santander is shaking him down he can try Northern New Extremadura. Vizcaya even.

    Failing that, I suppose the cartels get themselves a space programme . . .

  • b

    Those complaining about the political note in this post (i.e. that further Democrat control of the federal government could lead to less cooperation from the regulatory agencies toward SpaceX) should contend with the obvious point that the statement is objectively true, and in fact, one can find reams of news articles wherein Democrats assert that the Trump admin has been too lax in regulating industry, and accuse it of destroying the planet with its drive to roll back onerous and counterproductive regulations. The strategy of the left has for decades been to retard and otherwise frustrate various unfavored industries in regulatory hell, tying them up in litigation and regulatory- and judicially-imposed delays and bans. This is not my contention: it’s the explicit strategy of many Democrat-aligned environmental groups (cf. any proposed pipeline).

    Indeed, although it’s not necessarily true of the party as a whole, there is a sizable Democrat caucus that argues that all dollars spent on space are wasted and would be better spent on entitlements.

    If the shoe fits and all…

    Just one:

  • Michael S. Kelly

    FAA launch licensing and its attendant requirements apply to any US entity conducting a launch from anywhere in the world. Rocket Labs, for example, launches from New Zealand, under an FAA launch license. The company had to establish a US entity, Rocket Labs USA, in order to do this. Sea Launch also launched under FAA license.

    Having been Chief Engineer at FAA/AST for ten years, I can say that its eagerness to accommodate the industry has been independent of the Administration. Though George Neild is no longer there (a commercial space enthusiast), Kelvin Coleman (like-minded) is still Deputy Associate Administrator. Wayne Montieth, the Associate Administrator retired out of the Air Force as a Brigadier General, and Commander of the 45th Space Wing. That gave me some pause initially, but I understand he has come to accept the commercial part of commercial space transportation.

    Not yet having issued an orbital launch license for Starship/Superheavy is indicative of nothing. They cannot issue a license for a vehicle whose design isn’t even complete. That said, I can see some good reason for concern about how difficult it might be. Launching a rocket with twice the takeoff of a Saturn V from a site so (relatively) close to a small town is going to attract some attention. The difficulty is inherent in the nature of the project, and I doubt that regulatory overreach will be a factor.

  • Michael S. Kelly: Though I totally respect your knowledgeable perspective about FAA/AST, I refer you to this essay: The coming purge.

    Democrat control in the executive branch has in the past twenty-five years increasingly led to a demand that all bureaucrats at all levels adhere to Democratic Party policy positions. If met with any resistance, officials have routinely been faced with three options: resign, get fired, or get investigated and removed with his or her reputation slandered. All three tactics have been used in many agencies to maintain Democratic Party control of the bureaucracy, even when Trump was president.

    So far the FAA/AST has not been a very important policy target for the Democrats. More important was maintaining control in the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department. Once Biden is in power do not be surprised however if that eye of Mordor begins to look closely at the aerospace industry. It is a juicy target, with lots of cash that can be squeezed from it by a bit of extortion. Or to paraphrase movie gangsters, “Nice rocket company you got there. Shame if something happened to it.”

  • wayne

    Led Zeppelin
    The Battle of Evermore

    “The Dark Lord Rides In Force Tonight, And Time Will Tell Us All.
    Oh Throw Down Your Plow And Hoe, Rest Not To Lock Your Homes.
    Side By Side We Wait The Might, Of The Darkest Of Them All….”

  • Michael S. Kelly

    That should have read: “…twice the takeoff thrust of a Saturn V…”

  • wayne

    “NHTSA probing Tesla over suspension safety problems in 115,000 vehicles”

  • Steve Miller: Thank you for letting me know. Mark Whittington and I go back a long while.

  • OR Native

    Well, the SN9 test flight just got scrubbed by the FAA. I’m a lefty liberal, in favor of the new administration, but if this test flight was scrubbed for some ridiculous political vendetta, I’m writing angry letters to my senators and my representative. Now, I’m off to see if the FAA has any excuse for their behavior today.

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