No Big Deal? Space X’s Falcon May Mean a New Era of Space Travel and Cause No Environmental Impact?

The federal government recently found that private, reusable spacecraft launches don’t significantly impact the (Earth-bound) environment.

Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration, tiering to NEPA documents already prepared by the U.S. Air Force, found that the famed “SpaceX” Falcon launch vehicles don’t cause a significant enough impact on the environment to merit a full environmental impact statement.  You can access FAA’s EA/FONSI here.

In a separate statement, FAA described its actions as follows:

The FAA’s Proposed Action is to issue new launch licenses or modify existing launch licenses to allow SpaceX to conduct vertical landings of a Falcon launch vehicle first stage at CCAFS. Alternatives analyzed as part of the FONSI include the Proposed Action and the No Action Alternative. Under the No Action Alternative, the FAA would not issue or modify launch licenses to allow SpaceX to conduct Falcon landings at CCAFS. The Falcon first stage would continue to land in the Atlantic Ocean.

This action’s technological and social significance—especially in the minds of people imagining humanity’s future among the stars—is something quite apart from its (terrestrial) environmental impact.  The FAA believed, not unreasonably, that its actions in the SpaceX endeavor are of little environmental significance.  The agency is issuing licenses for the operation of commercial launch and reentry vehicles at launch sites. Both the Air Force and FAA found that these launches, neither individually or collectively would result in a significant impact on the quality of the human environment.

When Do Technological Leaps Implicate Big Environmental Consequences?

It might not be that simple, though.  A path-breaking NEPA case decided when the statute was still young, Scientists’ Institute for Public Information v. Atomic Energy Commission 481 F.2d 1079 (D.C. Cir. 1973), held that even research and development projects with far-off consequences can merit a deeper look (a full impact statement) under NEPA.  The SIPI court rejected the government’s argument that a “liquid metal fast breeder reactor” program seeking to develop the next generation of nuclear power sources didn’t merit an EIS because it was just research and development—not the actual licensing of commercial reactors.

Here, of course, Space X has already been granted NASA contracts.  It’s already put commercial test vehicles into space.  And, as last week’s launch showed, they mean business.  Moreover, as Scientific American pointed out, what SpaceX is attempting to do is really hard.  Success here could well mean a significant breakthrough for interplanetary (and perhaps one day interstellar) space travel.

SpaceX Hawthorne Manufacturing facility

SpaceX Hawthorne Manufacturing facility

That is certainly Elon Musk’s dream.  As this piece in The Guardian shows, SpaceX is in this for the breakthroughs.  And they are gearing up in a big way.  So even granting that every single launch—in and of itself—causes a relatively small environmental impact (and relativity is hard at work here: each launch burns enough super-cooled liquid oxygen to thrust 13K kilos into space), the overall implications for Earth’s environment could be giant-sized.

Was the court in SIPI right to order an EIS for that reactor program?  It ultimately came to very little in the way of commercial consequences. Breeder reactors quickly proved to be more trouble than they were worth.  Should an EIS exploring the possible environmental outcomes of the SpaceX Falcon project be prepared?  That EIS might demonstrate just how little the good people at work on these projects really know about where all of this is headed.  And they probably don’t want that demonstration to work.

 

{Image: Launch of Falcon 9 from Vandenbergh AFB, Sept. 2013}

I teach environmental, natural resources, and administrative law at Penn State Law. Before teaching I was an enforcement lawyer at U.S. EPA. Along the way I've done work for environmental nonprofits and written a fair bit about NEPA.
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