Island Voices: Hawaii needs input on SpaceX ocean-landing plans
by Lynda Williams
Take away points:
- On April 14, 2023, Elon Musk's private spaceship company, SpaceX, was granted an experimental launch permit by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to crash land the world's largest spacecraft, Starship, into the ocean 62 miles north of Kauai and a few hundred miles east of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
- For the environmental review for the permit, the FAA did not require the more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) but only a nominal Environmental Assessment (EA) that did not require consultation with stakeholders or input from Hawaiian residents or agencies like OHA.
- The EA concluded that "less than one" of the more than 30 marine mammals protected by the Endangered Species Act would be harmed when the 100 ton steel ship explodes from 14 tons of rocket fuel onboard with a ton of TNT force or from the debris and shrapnel sinking or drifting in the ocean.
- It is recommended that Hawaii demand the FAA suspend the SpaceX license, conduct a full EIS and include the residents of Hawaii in the review process.
- Starship is a spacecraft under development by Elon Musk's space company SpaceX, At 120 meters and a liftoff mass of 5000 metric tons, it is the largest & most powerful spacecraft ever built. It is intended to carry crew and cargo to Earth's orbit, the Moon and Mars. SpaceX has multi-billion dollar contracts with both NASA and the Pentagon for civilian and military projects.
The world watched aghast as SpaceX blew up it’s own spaceship on April 20, four minutes after launch due engine failure. Even though the mission was not completed, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, claimed it was a success because the real goal was for the rocket to clear the launch pad at the spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas.
What most folks don’t know realize is that Starship was always going to blow up when it crash landed in the Pacific Ocean, just 62 nautical miles north of Kauai and a few hundred miles east of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
In the next test launch, which Musk boasted will happen in the next few months, the world’s largest spaceship will descend towards the Earth in free fall and blow up upon impact with a force of a ton of TNT as fuel ignites in a great explosion. On a second and third launch test, Starship will breakup in the atmosphere and tumble down and crash land in a debris field several hundred miles long Southwest of the island chain as shown in the red swath on the map.
SpaceX obtained a Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) commercial space launch license rubber stamped by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) without any consultation of the Hawaiian people because according to an email I received from the FAA, “No in-person public outreach was conducted in Hawaii as the Starship vehicle was planned to land outside of range for impacts to the residents of Hawaii.”
First of all, that is assuming everything goes exactly according to the plan, which we have all just witnessed doesn’t always happen. If the Starship goes off course by even a few degrees the consequences could be catastrophic to Hawaii.
Secondly, I think most folks in Hawaii would agree that 62 miles north of Kauai is considered Hawaii culturally if not legally and that is way too close for what is essentially a rocket bomb to crash land.
SpaceX was not required to do a full EIS or Environmental Impact Study, only a much weaker Environmental Assessment (EA) that only requires the analysis of ‘nominal operations’ or best case scenarios. Why was that allowed when the worst case scenarios are so catastrophic?
For example, rather than doing a detailed analysis of the potential impact to Marine Mammals protected by the Endangered Species Act, NOAA wrote a “Biological Opinion” for the EA that argued “less than one” animal would be harmed by a 100 metric ton steel rocket with the energy of a small nuclear bomb.
It came to that conclusion because they only one “nominal” scenario that the Starship would hit the water exactly horizontal to the surface with the fuel tanks orientated on the top, which is impossible to control or predict. If the explosion is above water, NOAA argues, only a fraction of the energy will be transmitted into the ocean travel
deep enough to harm to any of the 30 endangered species of whale, shark, turtle, monk seal, dolphin and rays protected in Hawaii.
The EA has many unsubstantiated claims, such as no animals would be near the surface of the water during the crash - even though most are mammals that surface to breather air.
It ignored the fact that Humpback whales migrate through the “action area.” It assumed that most of the debris will be large enough to sink to the bottom of the ocean without encountering and injuring animals - but if it any does drift into the PapahanauMokuakea Marine National Monument, then the Coast Guard would be sent to clean it up.
This alone is reason to contest the EA and demand an EIS since NOAA and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs co -manage Papahanaumokuakea and OHA should have been consulted, but was not.
The FAA and NOAA analyses are flawed, and both are failing in the their duty to protect the people of Hawaii extreme corporate and federal abuse.
Hawaii must not become collateral damage and a colonized sacrifice zone for the government’s privatization of teh space program and a billionaire’s personal ambition and corporate profits.
At minimum, the FAA must suspend the license, conduct a full EIS and include the residents of Hawaiian in the review process. The best plan is to ban SpaceX from trashing people and planet in Musk’s ego trip to Mars.
References: Every document cited can be found on this FAA website:
Lynda Williams is an environmental activist and investigative science journalist living in Hilo.