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SpaceX taps Texas for 'commercial Cape Canaveral' site

Hang in there for the tedious environmental review, Mr. Musk

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More details have emerged about one of the sites that Space Exploration Technologies – better known as SpaceX – is considering for what founder Elon Musk has referred to as "a commercial Cape Canaveral."

The site in question is in the southern tip of the state of Texas, just outside Brownsville in Cameron County, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, over which SpaceX's launches would fly.

Details of that site's choice come from the US Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which published a bureaucratically monikered "Notice of Intent to Prepare an EIS, Open a Public Scoping Period, and Conduct a Public Scoping Meeting" in the Tuesday issue of the Federal Register.

According to the FAA document, the EIS – environmental impact statement, for those of you not well-versed in bureaucratese – would study the suitability of the site for the construction of a "vertical launch area and a control center area to support up to 12 commercial launches per year."

Those launches, the FAA notes, would be of SpaceX's "Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy (up to two per year), and a variety of smaller reusable suborbital launch vehicles."

The notice also includes detail on the vehicles themselves. It describes the Falcon 9 as a 230-foot "medium-lift class" launch vehicle with a lift-off weight of about one million pounds, powered by "highly refined kerosene", better known in the trade as RP-1, and liquid oxygen.

Cameron County, Texas

Cameron County, Texas
(click for larger map)

The Falcon Heavy is described as a "heavy-lift class" vehicle that's essentially a Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first-stage cores "strapped on". Also 230-feet in length – or height, your call – the Falcon Heavy would weigh in at 3,400,000 pounds at lift-off.

The smaller, reuseable suborbital vehicle would be a Falcon 9 first stage with a maximum propellant load – both LOX and RP-1 together – of about 6,900 gallons.

In addition to the vertical launch structure, a variety of buildings would be constructed at the site, such as a hanger, warehouses, control center, offices, workshop, and possibly a "a launch vehicle preparation hangar and satellite fuels storage."

The Cameron County site is far from a done deal – and Musk isn't limiting SpaceX's site search to simply this spot. Back in November, he said that "several states and territories" were under consideration, including sites in Alaska, California, Florida, Texas, and Virginia.

We now know where the Texas one is.

In addition, the FAA is just at the beginning its EIS process, and is soliciting input from "interested agencies, organizations, Native American tribes, and members of the public."

Among the items that the EIS will consider are (take a deep breath):

air quality; noise and compatible land use; land use, including Section 4(f) properties and Farmlands; coastal resources; biological resources, including threatened and endangered species; water resources, including surface waters and wetlands, groundwater, floodplains, and water quality; historical, architectural, archaeological, and cultural resources; light emissions and visual resources; hazardous materials, pollution prevention, and solid waste; infrastructure and utilities; and socioeconomics, environmental justice, and children's environmental health and safety.

If you'd like to get in on the ground floor of the EIS – or are simply interested on how a federal agency crams both floodplains and children's environmental health and safety into a single meeting – drop by Brownsville's ITEC Center on May 15, 2012 at 5pm for the public "scoping" meeting.

While you're there, you might want to check out the proposed site yourself. Luckily, the FAA provides rather detailed directions. "The proposed vertical launch area site is currently undeveloped and is located directly adjacent to the eastern terminus of Texas State Highway 4 (Boca Chica Boulevard) and approximately 3 miles north of the Mexican border on the Gulf Coast," the notice reads. "It is located approximately 5 miles south of Port Isabel and South Padre Island."

That specificity also a hint of some impacts that the EIS may need to consider. From our reading of maps of the area, the site appears to be adjacent to the Boca Chica State Park, Brazos Island State Park, and Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area, Boca Chica Unit. ®

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