July 14, 2024

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Blue Origin, ULA Warn SpaceX Starship Launch in Florida Could Be Too Disruptive

Blue Origin, ULA Warn SpaceX Starship Launch in Florida Could Be Too Disruptive

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SpaceX’s plan to launch its giant two-stage Starship-Super Heavy rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has drawn the attention and concern of two rival space companies, who have warned federal officials that the 492-foot-tall rocket has yet to be tested, would be too dangerous and could be too disruptive to the nation’s busiest spaceport and the surrounding environment.

United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin — which have large footprints on the Space Coast and view SpaceX as a direct competitor — have filed written concerns with the FAA.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is preparing an environmental impact statement to assess the potential impacts of launching Starships up to 44 times a year from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). SpaceX is also eyeing a possible second Starship launch pad at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Station.

“As the largest rocket in existence, an accident would cause serious or even catastrophic damage, while normal launches would have a cumulative impact on the 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. In Cape Town, ULA officials noted that their launch pad is only three miles from Pad 39A, and other companies are located nearby.

“If a similar incident were to occur again, this debris would reach ULA operations and could injure people or damage property. With the increased thrust planned for Starship’s launch, debris from a similar launch failure could reach larger, populated areas around Kennedy Space Center.”

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

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In a three-page letter to the FAA, Blue Origin officials proposed limiting the launch and landing rate of Starship Super Heavy rockets “to a number that has minimal impact on the local environment, locally employed personnel, and the local community.”

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

SpaceX media representatives did not respond to messages seeking comment on this story.

Space companies compete for contracts

In the days following the FAA comments from his rivals, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk resorted to using just two words: “Judge Origin.” Some media reports have described the comments about the Starship environmental study as a battle between billionaires, particularly Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos.

However, “if a large company has the ability to complain about one of its competitors in an open public forum, they probably will,” said Don Platt, director of the Spaceport Education Center at the Florida Institute of Technology in Titusville.

“You have to take the source into account. They’re not going to want to hand the keys to the space industry to SpaceX. And now, that seems to be what’s happening,” Platt said.

“It’s not because of anything unfair on the part of the government, or anything like that. It’s because SpaceX is just doing its job. It’s doing its job. And Blue Origin and United Alliance are having a hard time keeping up,” he said.

Excluding potential Starship missions, SpaceX rockets have accounted for 46 of the Space Coast’s 49 orbital launches so far this year. United Alliance has also flown three more, while Blue Origin officials hope to begin flying New Glenn rockets by the end of the year.

The three space companies are competing for NASA contracts. Tensions between SpaceX and Blue Origin escalated after NASA selected Starship to land humans on the moon under the Artemis program. Blue Origin sued NASA, saying Starship was “too complex and too risky.”

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

Blue Origin, ULA warn of Starship rocket risks

The Federal Aviation Administration is preparing to issue an environmental impact statement for Starship as part of its certification process to authorize future launches from Kennedy Space Center. Separately, the Air Force is conducting an environmental study on SpaceX’s goal of moving Starship-Super Heavy launches to Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Space Station by 2026.

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In their letters to the FAA, Blue Origin and United Alliance warned of a range of risks associated with Starship. 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 carry up to 5,200 metric tons of liquid methane for propellant.”
  • United Launch Alliance said landing the boosters at Pad 39A, rather than using unmanned ships in the Atlantic Ocean, “shifts the risk of system failure to the communities, businesses and environment surrounding Kennedy Space Center.”
  • Blue Origin has expressed concerns about the safety of its employees and assets in the event of a malfunction, citing concerns about debris spread, explosion overpressure, sonic boom, explosion, fire, noise, airborne toxins and hazardous materials.
  • Disrupting other launches. “SpaceX is seeking to launch the largest rocket ever repeatedly from two launch sites within a six-mile radius,” ULA said. “A single Starship launch site would likely disrupt other launches in the area and cause significant environmental impacts.”

Local residents have also raised environmental concerns about Starship.

FAA officials are accepting public comments on Starship through June 24, and have heard from Brevard groups as well. In mid-June, the federal agency hosted open days for the public at the Radisson Resort at the Harbor in Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center 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 Society President Charlie Venuto praised the reuse of Launch Pad 39A for Starship — especially compared to the option of building a new launch complex on undeveloped Kennedy Space Center property.

However, the Titusville-based MIWA argues that the FAA’s environmental study should address a range of environmental impacts of Starship, such as:

  • Quality stormwater management system to protect environmentally threatened Indian River Lake.
  • Effects of artificial lighting on nesting sea turtles, migratory and nesting birds, and nocturnal wildlife.
  • Cumulative impacts on air quality, stratospheric ozone damage, habitat destruction, ability to practice conservation management techniques such as controlled burning, and carbon emissions, considering Blue Origin’s upcoming New Glenn rockets.
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In a 10-page letter, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge officials noted that the environmental studies conducted by Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station “appear to be interrelated actions that are considered separately, making the two analyses of impacts, including cumulative impacts, less efficient and less comprehensive and requiring significant mutual integration between the two.”

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

University of Central Florida Space Expert: Having Multiple Strong Space Companies Is Essential

In an email, Phil Metzger, director of the Stephen W. Hawking Center for Microgravity Research and Education at the University of Central Florida, said he believes ULA’s statement on Starship is fair, because it asks the FAA to do its job with consideration for potential impacts on the environment, nearby communities and other companies’ launches at the Cape.

“They have pointed out that it is in the national interest to have multiple healthy launch companies to ensure access to space so that one company’s operations do not shut out its competitors,” Metzger said. “I think that is all legitimate and should be emphasized.”

However, he said he believed Blue Origin made a “serious mistake” by proposing to cap Starship’s launch rate.

“This would be the least creative and least useful solution to Cape Town’s potential problems,” Metzger said.

“Space is becoming more important to the world, to national security, and to economic prosperity, and the United States needs to increase the launch rate — from all providers — not create limits that will ultimately hurt each 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 [email protected] Or on X: @Brook of stars.

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