Starship 20, Booster 4, and Starship launch tower at Boca Chica, Texas. Photo Credit: Elon Musk / SpaceX
The United States’ democratic capitalist model has many advantages. Its freedoms serve as an engine for rapid innovation and economic growth. The advancement of the US space sector and commercial rocketry is largely due to this dynamism. Companies like SpaceX have taken Facebook’s “go fast and break things” motto to heart. This philosophy has served SpaceX well. The Falcon 9 rocket, despite traveling at Mach 10 during each mission, has only failed twice out of 150 missions flown. Unfortunately, not everyone seems enthused by the opportunities that a booming commercial rocket sector can provide for both the space sector and the United States more generally. Red tape and NIMBY (not in my neighborhood) attitudes have stalled or outright halted the creation or expansion of the two newest spaceports in the United States, even as China rockets ahead in developing its own launch capabilities.
Since 2010, the cost of launching cargo into space has dramatically fallen. Before the advent of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the average cost to launch one kilogram into orbit was approximately $10,000. Now the cost is roughly $2,500. The explosion in the availability of low-cost rocketry has already enabled a massive increase in the viability of space assets across the military and civilian domains. The Ukrainian military is actively using the internet access provided to Ukraine by Elon Musk’s massive Starlink satellite constellation to coordinate drone and artillery strikes on Russian forces. South Korea is also leveraging the capabilities of SpaceX and has contracted the company to launch five spy satellites in the next three years. On April 1, 2022, Germany’s space agency hitched a ride on SpaceX’s fourth ridesharing mission. The payload, launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, was made up of 40-satellites, including a massive 1,000-kilogram German satellite. This satellite’s hyperspectral instruments will allow it to “[monitor] and [characterize the] Earth’s environment on a global scale.” These developments show promise; as the launch cost reduction has removed launch cost as the single largest barrier to the modular space-based solar power constellations. Such constellations have the potential to serve as a crucial source of 24/7 renewable energy, unlike wind and terrestrial solar farms.
The efficiencies provided by private space launches become even more striking once one considers the possibilities provided by SpaceX’s next-generation rocket: Starship. Due to Starship, SpaceX will blow past its own record and likely reduce launch costs from $2,500 a kilogram to $200 a kilogram. At 400 feet tall and with 17 million pounds of thrust, Starship dwarfs even the Saturn V, which stood at 363 feet and was capable of 7.6 million pounds of thrust. NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket produces at most 9.5 million pounds of thrust and at $4.1 billion a launch (originally budgeted at $2 billion) is far more expensive than Starship’s planned launch price of $10 million, even after budgeting for the cost of in-orbit refueling necessary to have Starship make it to the moon.
As commercial launches become more common, the availability of launch sites must grow as well. While America’s spaceport capacity is currently sufficient, this could soon change. Already we are beginning to see congestion at Cape Canaveral, and this problem is only likely to grow. In addition, George Nield, the former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Associate Administrator for commercial space transportation who now chairs the Global Spaceport Alliance, has argued that the concentration of launches at the two largest Federal launch sites, Vandenberg Airforce Base and Cape Canaveral, makes U.S. space infrastructure vulnerable. After all, Nield notes, “those places are known for hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes. You could also have a launchpad accident.”
A culture of regulation and NIMBYism is stifling the expansion and construction of the spaceports necessary to solve these issues, exemplified by the struggles faced by the spaceports in Boca Chica, Texas, and Camden, Georgia.
Getting licensing has proven to be a major hurdle in expanding and building spaceports.
SpaceX has particularly struggled to get licensing to expand its Boca Chica site to accommodate Starship launches. The FAA had originally scheduled its Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) to be completed by December 21, 2021, but a final decision has been pushed back repeatedly and is now expected on April 29, 2022. Should the FAA decide a full environmental impact statement (EIS) is required, Elon Musk has indicated the launch site would need to be moved to Cape Canaveral, resulting in at least a six to eight-month delay to Starship’s launch. SpaceX received even more bad news on March 7, 2022, when the Army Corp of Engineers pulled a separately required SpaceX application to expand the Boca Chica facility. The Corp cited SpaceX’s failure to provide the necessary requested information though it also indicated the process could be restarted once SpaceX furnished the required information.
A prolonged licensing process is not just an issue for SpaceX. Camden County, Georgia, has spent $10 million since 2015 to receive FAA licensing. The FAA just granted it a launch site operator’s license in December 2021. The Camden County administrator, Steve Howard, ruefully noted that “This was a challenging project, with a lot of battle scars.”
A lengthy regulatory process is not the only issue spaceports face. Local opposition and NIMBYism are also frequently at play. For example, 72% of voters in a recent Camden referendum rejected the proposal to build the spaceport. It should be noted that the County government is suing to invalidate the referendum and only 17% of registered voters participated. This vote came after vocal opposition by several environmental groups and local homeowners. Like many spaceports built on or near public land, the inherent isolated nature of the immediate launch site makes them habitats for wildlife, much of it endangered.
Similar environmental and property concerns have been raised regarding the Boca Chica expansion. Wildlife activists have noted the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge is a nesting ground for the numerous bird species and the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. An ecological impact is possibly already being felt, with the local population of piping plovers declining by half in the three years since SpaceX began operating heavily in the area.
Residents have complained that launches by SpaceX have blown out their windows and showered debris onto the usually publicly accessible beach. While SpaceX has offered to buy out residents at what it claims are 3x market rates, residents like Celia Johnson have said they felt pressured by the implied threat of eminent domain. It should be noted that very few people live in Boca Chica Village. In 2021, there were only nine permanent residents, and in 2000, long before SpaceX moved next door, there were only 26. Despite these concerns, SpaceX has received strong backing from the local county and state governments, who both recognize the huge economic benefits that SpaceX’s presence will provide.
While any harmful impacts to local residents, wildlife, and the environment are unfortunate, it should be remembered that progress always comes at some price. When the U.S. government first began developing Cape Canaveral, Florida, as a center for missile and rocketry research, it did not allow either NIMBYism or red tape to significantly interfere. After President Truman approved the establishment of an Air Force base on the Cape in 1949, most residents largely complied and sold their land. Those individuals who obstinately waited for the court decisions “were temporarily removed from Cape Canaveral by bus and housed at the Brevard Hotel in the city of Cocoa during hazardous launch operations near their homes.” Fears over the environmental impacts of rocket launches were also not allowed to interfere. Despite being a habitat for many endangered species, including the bald eagle, environmental concerns were set aside in order to win the Cold War arms and space races. The Merritt Island National Wildlife Preserve was only created in 1963, two years after NASA decided to establish a launchpad on Merritt Island.
Environmental preservation and landowner’s rights are important. However, their significance pales in comparison to the benefits provided by widely available low-cost launch services. The last space race ended with a man on the moon and demonstrated the superiority of the democratic capitalistic model. Winning this new space race will provide not only a propaganda coup but also significant, and perhaps even decisive, economic and military advantages to the victor. Federal, State, and local government action should reflect the fact that the race back into space is one the United States cannot afford to lose.