Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Will Space X Texas Site Pose A Hazard To Florida?

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice on April 10, 2012 that Space X proposes to construct a vertical launch area and a control center area to support up to 12 commercial launches per year near Brownsville, Texas.

The geography is strikingly similar to that of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, Florida with barrier islands attached to the mainland with a port inlet.  The proposed site is also next to the Los Palomas Wildlife Management Area and Boca Chica State Park similar to the uninhabited Merritt Island National Refuge.  But there is one major difference between launches from the proposed Texas site and that of launches from Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station - a clear shot to the open Atlantic Ocean.

According to the FAA notice, all launch trajectories would be to the east over the Gulf of Mexico.  Although the notice does not give an exact trajectory, a launch due east from the Texas site would place a payload over heavily populated South Florida metro areas of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach within minutes after launch (yellow line on map above).

Now to be clear, the possibility of a payload crashing down on Florida is extremely remote because the launch failure would have to occur within a window measured in milliseconds at the altitude necessary for a payload to reach Florida.  But ever since the creation of NASA, space flight is shaped more often by politics rather than practicality (which is why NASA has centers spread across the U.S. to curry favor for funding from politicians).  Most people would rather have a 0 percent chance of having a satellite crash on them than a .00000000000001 chance.  The irony of the Texas site is that the Space Coast of Florida would actually lie in a potential launch debris field.

Safety issues will be addressed by the FAA, along with environmental studies and other factors for consideration.  The full FAA notice also solicits comments from the public.