Tuesday, June 14, 2022

A SpaceX News Tripleheader

You miss a couple of days of the regular news beat and all kinds of stuff happens.  

 Big one first:

FAA Approves the SpaceX PEA

As expected, the Federal Aviation Administration completed the Programmatic Environmental Assessment on SpaceX Boca Chica on Monday, June 13th.  Rather than granting the higher-level approval called a FONSI - Finding Of No Significant Impact - the agency granted a Mitigated FONSI.  That's one with strings attached that SpaceX must respond to before they can launch.  The full document is accessible here.  The full document (pdfs) are in the vicinity of 70MB (some files are less than 1MB). 

It's probably good to think of this as the first of several approvals they'll need to obtain, but it's also arguably the most important.  SpaceX has been working toward having Boca Chica the primary site for the atmospheric testing of Starship/Super Heavy.  Ultimately, it plans to turn this into the main launch site for the pair of vehicles into orbit, and when the experimentation is done, it will potentially be a site for the launch of commercial cargo. The booster could either return to the site or land offshore and be ferried back. 

The FAA's final environmental assessment was made significantly easier because SpaceX amended its plans to delete three major components of the launch facility. The first of these would take commercially supplied methane and eliminate some impurities to generate a fuel compatible with the company's Raptor engines. But changes to those engines have made them capable of operating with commercial-grade methane, eliminating the need for this facility.

The other major eliminations were a desalination facility and a power plant that would be needed to operate it. The water produced by it would be used to limit the spread of flaming exhaust during launch. SpaceX removed these because it remains uncertain whether a water quench will be required during launches; if it is, it will be handled with water trucked to the site.

What seems to be a significant issue with the approval is the restriction of launches and tests SpaceX can do every year.  The final PEA contains this submission from SpaceX on their pace of operations. 

Limiting themselves to five launches per year doesn't seem like much for a company that's pushing better than weekly launch cadence for the Falcon 9.  At this phase of the Starship/SuperHeavy development, though, that's probably adequate.  Even at their pace of operations.  

More on the mitigations:

Of the dozens of mitigations SpaceX will have to implement to conduct Starship launches under its new Starbase PEA, a majority appear to be normal and reasonable. Most focus on specific aspects of things already discussed, like protecting turtles (lighting, beach cleanup, education, nest scouting and monitoring, etc.), safeguarding other protected species, respecting impacted areas of historical importance; ensuring that road closures avoid certain holidays and periods to limit Starbase’s impact on local use of public parks and beaches; and other common-sense extensions of existing rules and regulations. In a few cases, SpaceX has even agreed to deploy solar-powered Starlink internet terminals to enable “enhanced satellite monitoring” of wildlife for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Peregrine Fund.
Others are oddly specific and read a bit more like local and state agencies taking advantage of their leverage to get SpaceX to manage and pay for basic infrastructure maintenance and improvement that any functional government should already be doing. The lengthy list of odd “mitigations” includes the following:
  • Quarterly beach and highway cleanups
  • Construct at least one highway wildlife crossing
  • Construct a wildlife viewing platform along Highway 4
  • Complete and maintain traffic control fencing demarcating the boundaries of TPWD land along said public highway
  • $5,000 per year to “enhance” the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) fishing “Tackle Loaner Program”
  • Prepare a history report on any events and activities of the Mexican War and Civil War that took place in all affected areas of historical importance
  • Fund the development of five signs explaining the “history and significance” of those areas
  • “[Replicate and install] the missing stars and wreaths on the Palmetto Pilings Historical Marker”

Those last four (at least) are pretty good examples of  “more like local and state agencies taking advantage of their leverage to get SpaceX” to do things “any functional government should already be doing.”

Root Cause of Cargo Dragon Scrub Found

The other big story is that troubleshooting the Draco thruster problem that forced delays onto last week's CRS25 Cargo Dragon mission (cancelled and rescheduled a few times already) has revealed the source of the problems to be ... wait for it ... valves in the highly corrosive fuel and oxidizer lines.  I'm not going to say it's exactly what Boeing encountered in Starliner that led to the launch being delayed almost a full year, but it kind of rhymes with their issues.  

There is one big difference between the issue on Starliner and CRS25's.  SpaceX has launched the Cargo and Crew versions of the Dragon many times, and tested their systems far more times than that.  Literally hundreds of thrusters have been flown on dozens of different orbital Dragon missions.  Dragon's system is undoubtedly more flight proven than Starliner's system and more likely than not the valve issue is a minor thing that should be fixed quickly. 

On June 13th, NASA distributed an update on those issues, revealing that SpaceX had narrowed down the cause of the anomalous fuel vapor readings that delayed the launch to a single “Draco thruster valve inlet joint.” Dragon spacecraft have 16 Draco maneuvering thrusters, each of which has at least two “valve inlet joints” for fuel (monomethylhydrazine or MMH) and oxidizer (dinitrogen tetroxide or NTO).

Those valves look like this (circled) on a flight-proven Draco thruster:

Photo credit to Pauline Acalin for Teslarati.

The CRS25 mission is currently set for No Earlier Than July 11th.

Finally, the smallest item in the tripleheader. According to the Launch Schedule at SpaceflightNow.com there will be three Falcon 9 launches in a roughly 36 hour period starting Friday the 17th at 12:08:50 PM EDT.  

As you can see the second launch is from Vandenberg SFB at 10:00 AM EDT Saturday and the final will be back at the Cape Canaveral SFB at 12:30 AM on Sunday the 19th.  While it's clearly Sunday morning, most people think of that as Saturday night.  From 12:09 PM on Friday until 12:09 Sunday morning is 36 hours.  Add another 20 minutes to get to 12:30 AM. 


  1. Even though SpaceX was given a "green light:", they are going at breakneck speed to get Starbase Florida up to speed - simply because Boca Chica *is* rather limited to what they can do. Maybe they will et the absolute number of launches raised, maybe not. If they can get the FAA to bend a little after seeing the damage done (if any!) to the area, they might be persuaded... but the Gubmint can be pretty pissy depending on the clowns at the top. Especially the Communists/Marxists running the show right now.

    Still, gonna be awesome and epic when they light the candle(s)!!

  2. All those special requests show that some people in the FedGov are/were working very diligently to find a way to shut SpaceX down.

    Quarterly trash cleanup? Dears, it is standard operating procedure around any aerospace facility to keep it clean.

    Scenic overlook? History report? Free Tackle? Wildlife crossing? That's just BS make work and all is set up to allow Fed inspectors to find 'issues' where none exist.

    1. I thought the $5000 for fishing tackle was pretty weird. In a company the size of SpaceX, it might not even be considered worth arguing about. It has been six years, but when I retired, I could order a $5000 test instrument without going through the capital expense process and just charge it like notepads and other trivial supplies. I've talked with engineers in other companies who had a yearly account around that and didn't even need to get approvals to buy things.

      The whole list, including that, reeks of getting whatever they can from "the rich dudes."

    2. FedGov is merely responding to the Greenies who made public input. The Feds understand what the Media would do if they ignored ANY input, no matter how insane.

    3. In one of their public statements the FAA said that. They said there was something like 18,000 comments they had to respond to.

      I seriously doubt that anyone in the public comments asked for things like those eight bullet points and especially not like the last four.

      Hey, they could be like ATF and not say a damned word about comments on their Ghost Guns/What's a Receiver?/What's "readily converted" NPRM.

    4. Exactly. They, the FedBois, could have said nothing, and just said "Yes." But... weird stuff, added in, making no sense. Cue Admiral Akbar.

      What else is in the very small fine print printed in invisible ink only able to be seen by a one-eyed one-legged trans-vegan under green moonlight? You know, the fine print that will allow the FedBois to come in and shut down everything over invisible souls of ancient snail darters that escaped being bombarded by interstellar bombers (shaped much like DC-8s) by the interstellar emperor-badguy Xenu...

  3. Question. In your opinion what is the best brand for line of sight communication?

    1. Since this question doesn't seem to go here - there's nothing about communications in this post - could you add more details about what you're referring to?

      Or email me as SiGraybeard at gmail dot com