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Proposed SpaceX Launch Site in Texas Draws Concerns

SpaceX, which just sent the first private spacecraft to the International Space Station, has proposed building a launch pad in Texas. But the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is concerned the proposed site is too close to endangered species.

A crane lifts SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft on to a barge after the vehicle twice orbited the Earth in December of 2010.

The company behind the commercial spacecraft that landed successfully in the Pacific Ocean on Friday after a mission to the International Space Station wants to come to the Rio Grande Valley. But the launch pad it is considering building has raised concerns among environmentalists and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department because of the proposed site's proximity to endangered animals and other wildlife.

The 50-acre site in southern Cameron County scouted by SpaceX, a commercial space transport company, is surrounded by Boca Chica State Park where animals listed under the Endangered Species Act such as ocelots, jaguarundi, piping plovers and green sea turtles have been sighted.

“TPWD is especially concerned with the direct impact noise, heat, vibration, fencing, and hazardous material spills may have on federally-listed species,” the parks department wrote Tuesday in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Bob Lancaster, the president of Texas Space Alliance, said he attended a May 15 meeting that the FAA held in Brownsville and saw a “great deal of public support from local residents” for a launch pad beside the state park. It would be the biggest in Texas. Blue Origin, founded by CEO Jeff Bezos, has a spaceport in West Texas.

Launch pads are typically built close to the equator to give spacecraft maximum speed from the rotation of the earth, Lancaster said. Cameron County is the southernmost county in Texas.  

SpaceX, a California-based company founded in 2002 by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, proposes to build a launch pad that would support up to 12 commercial space vehicle launches per year, according to TPWD’s letter to the FAA. The launch area would include the launch pad, a hangar, light towers, fuel storage tanks, a warehouse for parts storage and an elevated water storage tank, the letter says. SpaceX also proposes to build a control center 1.5 miles west of the launch site. The company did not return a call seeking comment.

The site under consideration by SpaceX is a privately owned area bounded on three sides by Boca Chica State Park. SpaceX had inquired about using the park as a project site but was told it was “not a viable option,” TPWD spokesman Tom Harvey said.

“This property was acquired to be protected for its unique and sensitive biological values, and to provide public recreational use,” Harvey said.

Harvey noted that the park property is under a 50-year lease to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is managing the land as part of a program aimed at preserving and restoring habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.

The FAA is assessing the environmental impacts of the area and will continue to provide opportunities to the public to comment as it did with the meeting in May, said Hank Price, an FAA spokesman. 

The state of Texas has been in talks with SpaceX about building its site here and not in Florida or Puerto Rico, sites the company is also considering for its launch area, the Houston Chronicle reported last Friday.

Environment Texas launched a petition drive on Friday to persuade Musk to choose another site in Texas. Director Luke Metzger said he has also contacted other environmental organizations to join him in urging the company to choose another site.

"I love the space program as much, if not more, than anyone," Metzger said in a news release. "But launching big, loud, smelly rockets from the middle of a wildlife refuge will scare the heck out of every creature within miles and sprays noxious chemicals all over the place. It’s a terrible idea, and SpaceX needs to find another place for their spaceport.”

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