Thursday, July 18, 2024

SpaceX Starship launches in Florida too disruptive, Blue Origin, ULA warn

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SpaceX’s plan to launch its monstrous Starship-Super Heavy two-stage tandem from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center caught the attention — and concern — of two rival space companies that warn federal officials the up-to-492-foot-tall rocket will be too untested, too dangerous and too potentially disruptive for the nation’s busiest spaceport and the surrounding environment.

United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin — which both have significant footprints on the Space Coast and view SpaceX as direct competition — have submitted written concerns to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA is preparing an environmental impact statement to evaluate potential impacts of Starships launching up to 44 times a year from pad 39A at KSC. SpaceX is also eyeing a potential second Starship launch pad on adjacent Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

“As the largest rocket in existence, an accident would inflict serious or even catastrophic damage, while normal launch operations would have a cumulative impact on structures, launch vehicle hardware, and other critical launch support equipment,” ULA officials wrote in a 22-page letter to the FAA.

ULA cited the April 2023 Starship explosion at SpaceX’s private launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, that sent debris flying across a six-mile radius. At the Cape, ULA officials noted that their launch pad is only three miles away from pad 39A, and other companies are located nearby.

“If a similar accident occurs again, that debris would reach ULA’s operations and could hurt people or damage property. And with the increased liftoff thrust planned for Starship, the debris from a similar launch failure could reach larger, populated areas surrounding KSC,” the ULA letter said.

Blue Origin employs more than 2,700 full-time workers in Brevard County and has invested more than $1 billion developing the world’s first privately built heavy-lift launch complex for future New Glenn rocket liftoffs.

Cape Canaveral: Is there a launch today? Upcoming SpaceX, NASA, ULA rocket launch schedule in Florida

In a three-page letter to the FAA, Blue Origin officials proposed to cap the rate of Starship-Super Heavy launches and landings “to a number that has a minimal impact on the local environment, locally operating personnel, and the local community.”

And ULA urged the government to consider an alternative to allowing SpaceX to bring Starship to KSC: Keep the giant rocket in Boca Chica, where it is now.

SpaceX media officials did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

Space companies compete for contracts

In the days following those FAA comments from his competitors, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk took to X to state just two words: “Sue Origin.” Some media reports have characterized these Starship environmental-study comments as a battle between billionaires, notably Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos.

However, Don Platt, director of the Florida Institute of Technology’s Spaceport Education Center in Titusville, said, “if a large company has the ability to complain about one of their competitors in an open public forum, then they’re probably going to do so.”

“You have to consider the source. They’re not going to want to just sort of hand the keys to the space industry over to SpaceX. And right now, it appears that that’s really what’s happening,” Platt said.

“And that’s not really because of anything that the government is being unfair about, or anything like that. It’s just that SpaceX is just, they’re operating. They’re doing their thing. They’re being successful. And Blue Origin and ULA are both having trouble keeping up with that,” he said.

Possible Starship missions aside, SpaceX rockets have accounted for 46 out of the Space Coast’s 49 orbital launches thus far this year. ULA has notched the other three launches, while Blue Origin officials hope to start launching New Glenn rockets by year’s end.

All three space companies are competitors for NASA contracts. Tension between SpaceX and Blue Origin unfolded after NASA selected Starship to land humans on the moon with the Artemis program. Blue Origin filed a lawsuit against NASA, further stating that Starship is “immensely complex and high-risk.”

In 2023, NASA was in position to add a second human landing system for Artemis. NASA selected Blue Origin’s Blue Moon to land astronauts on the moon alongside Starship during future missions.

Blue Origin, ULA warn of Starship hazards

The FAA is preparing the Starship environment impact statement as part of its licensing process to authorize future launches from KSC. Separately, the U.S. Air Force is conducting an environmental study on SpaceX’s goal of bringing Starship-Super Heavy liftoffs to Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station by 2026.

In its letters to the FAA, Blue Origin and ULA warned of an array of Starship-related dangers. Among the companies’ concerns:

  • Starship-Super Heavy operations are expected to have a greater environmental impact than any launch system operating on the Space Coast, Blue Origin said, noting that the two-stage rocket “can hold up to an unprecedented 5,200 metric tons of liquid methane for propulsion.”
  • Landing boosters at pad 39A, rather than using drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean, “shifts the risks of a system failure onto the communities, businesses, and environment that surround KSC,” ULA said.
  • Blue Origin expressed concerns for the safety of its employees and assets in the event of an anomaly, citing worries about debris dispersion, blast overpressure, sonic booms, explosion, fire, noise, air toxins and hazardous materials.
  • Disruption to other launch providers. “SpaceX seeks to frequently launch the largest rocket ever from two launch sites within a six-mile area. Just one Starship launch site is likely to disrupt other launch operations in the area and cause significant environmental impacts,” ULA said.

Locals also raise Starship environmental concerns

FAA officials accepted Starship public comments through June 24, and they heard from Brevard groups as well. The federal agency hosted mid-June public open houses at Raddison Resort at the Port in Cape Canaveral and the KSC Visitor Complex. The project website is located at faa.gov/space/stakeholder_engagement/spacex_starship_ksc

In a letter to the FAA, Merritt Island Wildlife Association President Charlie Venuto commended the repurposing of pad 39A for Starship — especially compared with the option of building a new launch complex on undeveloped KSC property.

However, the Titusville-based MIWA contends the FAA environmental study should address an array of Starship environmental ramifications, such as:

  • Quality of the stormwater management system to protect the ecologically imperiled Indian River Lagoon.
  • Impacts of artificial lighting on nesting sea turtles, migratory and nesting birds, and nocturnal wildlife.
  • Cumulative effects on air quality, stratospheric ozone layer damages, habitat destruction, ability to practice conservation management techniques such as controlled burns, and carbon emissions, factoring in Blue Origin’s upcoming New Glenn rockets.

In a 10-page letter, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge officials noted that the KSC and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station environmental studies “seem to be connected actions that are being considered separately, making the two analyses of impacts, including cumulative impacts, less efficient and less comprehensive and requiring substantial cross integration between the two.”

The Southeastern Fisheries Association commented that it supports national defense and space exploration efforts. That said, the group wants the FAA study to encompass Starship’s physical, social, and economic impacts on all stakeholders, including fishing families, local communities, businesses, restaurants, lodging facilities and Florida’s tourism industry. 

UCF space expert: Multiple robust space companies are key

Phil Metzger is director of the Stephen W. Hawking Center for Microgravity Research & Education at the University of Central Florida. In an email, he said he thinks the ULA statement about Starship is fair, because it asks the FAA to do its job while noting potential impacts on the environment, neighboring communities, and launch operations of other companies at the Cape.

“They noted that it is in the national interest to have multiple healthy launch companies for assured access to space so the operations of one company should not shut down its competitors. I think this is all legitimate and should be emphasized,” Metzger said.

However, he said he thinks Blue Origin made “a serious mistake” by suggesting a cap on the Starship launch rate.

“This would be the least creative and least helpful solution for potential problems at the Cape,” Metzger said.

“Space is becoming far more important to the world, to national security, and to economic prosperity, and the US needs to scale up the launch rate — from all providers — not create caps that will in the end hurt every company and the nation as a whole,” he said.

For the latest news from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, visit floridatoday.com/space.

Brooke Edwards is a Space Reporter for Florida Today. Contact her at bedwards@floridatoday.com or on X: @brookeofstars.

Space is important to us and that’s why we’re working to bring you top coverage of the industry and Florida launches. Journalism like this takes time and resources. Please support it with a subscription here.

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