OPINION: Bigger plans: Public should offer comments regarding new SpaceX request

Few will deny that one of the biggest stories in the Rio Grande Valley in recent years has been the development of the SpaceX testing and launch site at Boca Chica Beach. The aerospace company is planning even greater things for the facility, and the public is invited to comment on those plans.

People should take the opportunity to do so.

SpaceX has petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to issue an experimental permit and vehicle operator license from the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation to launch manned SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy rockets into orbital flight. In reviewing the request, the agency is preparing a Programmatic Environmental Assessment that looks at public safety issues, national security and foreign policy concerns, and potential environmental impact, among other factors. The public is invited to offer comments on the request, and online public hearings are scheduled for 5 p.m. on Oct. 18 and 20.

When Space Exploration Technologies founder Elon Musk secured the first permits to develop a rocket launch site at the mouth of the Rio Grande in 2014, initial plans were to send unmanned Falcon rockets to send supplies to the International Space Station and place commercial satellites in orbit. Permits and impact statements from the FAA that found such a facility would not have any major or negative impact on the area, were based on those plans.

They also were the basis of local measures, such an agreement from Cameron County to close State Highway 4, leading to the facility, on launch dates that originally would be limited to 12 per year.

Those plans have changed over the years, however. SpaceX moved rocket manufacturing and testing facilities from California to Boca Chica. The local site now is home to the development of some of the largest and most powerful rockets ever built, with engines and propellants that are far more powerful than those upon which the original FAA permits were awarded. And while failures and explosions are always possible at a rocket launch site, they are more common at the kind of testing facility that Boca Chica has become. We already have seen some spectacular failures there, and they’ve raised new concerns about their possible effect on the sensitive ecosystems that exist in South Texas, and in some cases nowhere else.

We haven’t hidden our support for SpaceX and the benefits it has brought, and can continue to bring, to South Texas, in terms of economic growth, educational opportunities, and even prestige. At the same time, we recognize the need to thoroughly vet all plans for the future. All voices should be heard, all concerns should be addressed and all risks should be mitigated.

Copies of the draft environmental assessment are available on the faa.gov website, Cameron County judge’s office or Brownsville public library branches. All comments, both pro and con, are valuable and can be emailed to [email protected] We encourage all concerned to offer their thoughts on a proposal that can greatly affect the Valley’s future.