July 17, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

FAA and NASA seek public input on SpaceX Starship launches at Kennedy Space Center – Spaceflight Now

The Ship 29 upper stage of the fully integrated Starship rocket as seen ahead of its fourth flight test on June 6, 2024. Image: Michael Cain/Spaceflight Now

The Federal Aviation Administration is preparing to gather public input on SpaceX Starship launch operations at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The request for comment comes about a month after the conclusion of an environmental review of a 100-acre expansion for SpaceX at its Hangar X site.

The pair of projects highlight a continued increase in activity for a company that aims to conduct more than 140 Falcon launches by the end of 2024, most of them from Florida's Space Coast.

“SpaceX attracts a lot of attention. No doubt about it. “They are doing a lot of amazing things and attracting a lot of public attention, not just locally or regionally, but globally,” said Don Dankert, technical lead for the Environmental Management Division at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

On June 12 and 13, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will host a series of public scoping meetings to inform the public and answer questions about the SpaceX project. proposal to launch Starship from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A). There will also be a virtual meeting on June 17 for those who cannot attend in person.

  • June 12: 2-4 pm ET, 6-8 pm ET at the Radisson Cape Canaveral, 8701 Astronaut Blvd, Cape Canaveral, Florida 32920
  • June 13: 6-8 pm ET at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Space Commerce Way, Merritt Island, Florida 32953
  • June 17 – Virtual

Attendees at the public hearings will include representatives from the Department of the Air Force, the U.S. Space Force, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Canaveral National Seashore and SpaceX.

The fourth section of SpaceX's Starship launch pad tower was lifted onto the lower three segments on the morning of July 21, 2022. Credit: Spaceflight Now

“Through scoping, you present the project to the general public and others, you get that feedback, and that's how we really figure it out: What are those key issues? What are the things, what are those areas that the public may have a high level of concern about? Dankert said. “And that, in turn, will lead us to say, 'Okay, we need to look at this much more closely or dig deeper, or maybe we don't consider it.'

Through the environmental impact statement (EIS) process, the FAA will lead a review of the impacts of SpaceX Starship operations in a number of areas including air quality, coastal resources, land use, noise and water resources, among others.

The evaluation is a follow-up to an EA. prepared in 2019 for Starship launches.

“Since then there have been changes in the configuration of the vehicles, the concept of operations, the infrastructure needs. And when SpaceX approached us with this, they obviously needed an FAA license to be able to operate on 39A at KSC,” Dankert said. “When we look at it, we consider it as an EIS (environmental impact statement). In a certain sense, it will complement or continue that analysis that we began in 2019.”

He said NASA requested that the FAA take on the role of lead federal agency in this process since they are in charge of launch licenses.

“I think it gives us greater reliability and reduces some of the risk. The FAA will have exactly what it needs to make its assessment come licensing time,” Dankert explained. “KSC is what we call a 'cooperating agency' in the development of that document. Therefore, we are fully committed.”

A rendering of SpaceX's Starship rocket in the separation stage of the 2019 Environmental Assessment of launch operations from Launch Complex 39A. Image: SpaceX

In 2019, SpaceX's proposal was to conduct 24 Starship launches per year, but with a different-looking Starship rocket. At the time, it was thought that the upper stage would consist of seven Raptor engines and land on Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) or on an unmanned craft.

Meanwhile, the Super Heavy booster would consist of 31 Raptor engines and would also land on an unmanned ship. At that time there were no plans for the booster to return to land on LC-39A.

“SpaceX now proposes to build additional launch infrastructure not previously contemplated in the 2019 EA: a super-heavy propellant collection tower, a natural gas liquefaction system, and an air separation unit for propellant generation.” , and stormwater/deluge ponds,” the FAA wrote. He added in a separate document that SpaceX would likely use about 1 million gallons of flood water per launch attempt.

“SpaceX also proposes to launch an advanced Starship design and the Super Heavy vehicle (up to nine raptor engines for Starship and up to 35 raptor engines for the Super Heavy booster), operate at a higher projected launch rate (up to 44 launches per year) , and land the Super Heavy booster on LC-39A in support of its reusability concept. “It is no longer proposed that spacecraft landings take place in CCSFS Landing Zone 1.”

A 2024 map of proposed upgrades to Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) requested by SpaceX along with a rendering of an upgraded version of Starship. Graphics: FAA

The new proposal would also give SpaceX the option of landing the booster on LC-39A, on an unmanned ship, or expending it at least five nautical miles from shore. The Air Force Department of Spacecraft Operations is conducting a similar environmental assessment at Space Launch Complex 37, the former home of United Launch Alliance's Delta 4 Heavy rocket.

in a FAA document In describing SpaceX's proposal, the agency said there is no alternative option that would be a reasonable change of course from the main proposal. It argued that “the only alternative to the Proposed Action as described in this EIS is the No Action Alternative.”

“LC-39A could provide time-critical mission capability to NASA for near-term lunar exploration in NASA's Artemis and Human Landing System programs,” the FAA wrote. “In addition to NASA's critical mission requirements, LC-39A would provide launch site diversity for Starship-Super Heavy to serve commercial exploration interests.”

The FAA also offered a look at future versions of the fully integrated Starship rocket, stating that it is “expected to be up to 492 feet (150 meters) tall depending on configuration and approximately 30 feet in diameter.” That's compared to the vehicle launching today, which is just 397 feet (121 meters) tall.

The document also states that the upgraded version of Starship will include 35 Raptor engines for the Super Heavy booster and nine for the upper stage.

A flowchart of the FAA licensing process. Graphic: FAA

100 acres no more forests

In addition to the Starship launch proposal, KSC has been busy with another request from SpaceX. Dankert's office spent the better part of two years reviewing a proposal by SpaceX to expand its main footprint at KSC, known as the Roberts Road campus, by 100 acres.

According to an environmental assessment (EA) approved in 2018, SpaceX has been making notable expansions and improvements within its current 67 acres, but this new expansion aims to bring the majority of its assets around Brevard County to this single location.

A representation of the work being done within SpaceX's current 67-acre parcel of land known as the Roberts Road campus. Graphic: SpaceX

As is the case with any infrastructure project in KSC, that meant undergoing federally mandated NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review. Part of that involves calling for public input on the overall proposal near the start of the evaluation and then calling for public comment again once a draft EA is issued.

“We published the document, posted it on the website, and gave the general public, including all of our interested agencies and others, the opportunity to read the document, view the subsequent findings, and then provide formal comments to the committee. Agency for us and SpaceX to consider in developing the final document,” Dankert said.

After doing its due diligence and considering all feedback, this spring, NASA issued a FONSI (finding without significant impact), which paves the way for SpaceX to move forward with its expansion plans. The next step in that process is for SpaceX to establish a leasing agreement with KSC.

“This is underway, in the final stages of executing that actual agreement between NASA and SpaceX,” Dankert said.

The transformation of this hundred-acre tract of land will not be a quick process. Part of SpaceX's ability to develop the space will be to submit a site plan to NASA “with additional details on building dimensions and site layout,” according to the FONSI document.

“The KSC site plan review process identifies potential limitations including land use, operational conflicts, natural resources, line of sight, safety and security, and ensures that the SpaceX plan complies with this SEA,” states the document. “SpaceX would implement the changes required by NASA.”

An aerial view of the Roberts Road campus. Image: Greg Scott – follow him on x.

Details of SpaceX's future expansion are largely kept secret, but the documentation provides a few crumbs of information. For example, in the biological opinion, prepared by the Florida Ecological Services Field Office (FESFO) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), there are references to buildings that will reach a height of up to 400 feet .

“The Action proposes the construction of multiple towers up to 400 feet tall,” Robert Carey, manager of FESFO's Environmental Review Division, wrote in his report. “Although the Action is located approximately six miles from the nearest nesting beach, the height of these towers has the potential to be seen by nesting sea turtles during sea turtle nesting season.”

For reference, the Statue of Liberty is approximately 305 feet (approximately 93 m) tall and the current version of Starship's Super Heavy booster is 232 feet (approximately 71 m).

Even with the FONSI now issued, Dankert and his office will continue to work with SpaceX on the future of the site.

“As SpaceX begins to develop their finalized plans, we will have the opportunity to review them and ensure they are using turtle-friendly lighting to the extent possible, where appropriate,” Dankert said. “Even though it's a good distance from the beach, that can contribute to what we call 'skyglow' on the beach.”

“SpaceX has an excellent environmental staff that we continually work closely with during land development, construction and then future operations.”

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