Science

Stefan Barensky: Will Elon Musk remain the owner of his Boca Chica kingdom?

A prominent communicator, Elon Musk likes to monopolize attention around his projects. The theft of the first 100% commercial manned mission allowed him, once again, to occupy the covers of magazines and the opening of news programs. On the other hand, there are issues in which you would like to be discreet, especially when you have to compromise your responsibility.

While Inspiration4’s hobbyist astronauts were enjoying their time in orbit, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an aviation and space industry regulator, released a 150-page report on the environmental impact of SpaceX’s activities based on in Boca Chica.

For three years, Elon Musk’s firm has been developing its giant Super Heavy launcher and Starship shuttle there, augmenting infrastructure in what was once a lost village, near the southernmost beach in Texas, on the edge of the estuary of the Rio Grande. However, all these activities are carried out on the basis of an environmental impact study dating back to … 2014, when it was only a matter of building one or two firing ranges for Falcon 9 launchers produced in California. Today, rockets ten times larger are manufactured on site with facilities that have continued to expand. Not to be ashamed of the neighbors, SpaceX bought part of the neighboring properties and even launched a procedure to create its own municipality, called “Starbase”, which would allow it to enact its own laws.

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But with the first test flight of the Super Heavy – Starship suit approaching, the FAA was reluctant to grant new licenses without a major revision of the environmental impact statement. Therefore, Musk’s teams had to consult with local officials and write a report outlining their projects and how they were not going to endanger natural ecosystems. It is this text that has just been published by the FAA, which is now waiting to collect opinions and comments to know if the company complies with the laws and standards in force or if an independent study is necessary.

The list of future infrastructures makes you dizzy

The document provided by the signature of Elon Musk is surprising. First, because of the richness of the description of the protected areas (including several natural parks) that surround the Boca Chica site. The Rio Grande estuary is one of those wetlands, essential for biodiversity, that environmentalists want to preserve. SpaceX produces an almost exhaustive catalog of the number of animals present, while ensuring that they are not in danger. So the revealed list of infrastructures that will soon come out of the ground makes you dizzy: a natural gas processing center, a 240 megawatt gas plant, and even a desalination plant that is supplied directly from the water table before continuing. brine in depth to facilitate the rise of softer water …

Finally, SpaceX describes the level of activity planned at its base and surprises with its moderation: only five Super Heavy – Starship would fly each year. Such a rate would not ensure the shipment of the two lunar landers promised to NASA in 2023 and 2024, which require 10 to 16 flights each, nor the circumlunar expedition “DearMoon” of the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, always announced. by 2023 and that it will require the same. Not forgetting all the development flights that must precede these operational missions.

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Last detail, no mention is made of the possibility of an accident on take-off. NASA examined the issue in the early 1960s to assess the risk posed by the explosion on the ground of an Apollo Saturn 5 rocket, with its 2,725 tons of propellants. Such a disaster would have represented the equivalent of 400 tons of TNT, ten times the explosion of the AZF factory in Toulouse in 2001. NASA had come to the conclusion that any larger launcher should take off from a barge at sea in general. The SpaceX launcher will carry 5,200 tons of propellants. A possible explosion would then be comparable to the one that struck the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020 and was felt as far as Cyprus, more than 200 kilometers away. Under these conditions and pending the FAA’s conclusions, the Super Heavy – Starship project will remain on the ground.

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