The Federal Aviation Administration convened the first of two virtual public hearings on Monday evening to solicit public comments on SpaceX's plan to launch its Starship rocket from South Texas.
The hearing, which lasted nearly four hours, drew both passionate support for SpaceX's plans to expand its Starbase facility as well as heated opposition. Limited to comments of three minutes or less, nearly five dozen people spoke during the hearing over Zoom.
By my informal counting, the comments tallied 39 in favor of the project and 18 against. The comments in favor of SpaceX were more likely to come from out of state, from people generally appreciative of the company's efforts to make humanity a “multiplanetary species.” However, there were plenty of local supporters as well.
Most of those who spoke against the project said they lived near Brownsville, or in the state of Texas. They cited a mix of environmental concerns, including wildlife habitat destruction, as well as impacts on the South Texas community, such as gentrification.
Several proponents of SpaceX said they had grown up near Cape Canaveral, in Florida, or other launch sites around the planet and had not seen environmental degradation in the vicinity. Rohan Joseph, who identified himself as an aerospace engineer, “lifelong environmentalist,” and birder, cited the protection of sea turtles at launch sites in India as an example of the positive effects of a launch site on an area.
He also wondered why SpaceX appeared to be receiving so much scrutiny for its launch site when there was a former oil drilling site in the vicinity, or, if the environment was so pristine, why nearby South Padre Island had been allowed to be built up. “If SpaceX were an oil exploration company, there would be no questions asked,” Joseph said.
A number of supporters also cited the project's ability to inspire a new generation of Texans. Gail Afar, a registered nurse in Texas, works with children in schools, and she said their eyes light up when the topic of SpaceX is raised.
Austin Barnard, who said he has lived in Brownsville his entire life, recalled growing up in South Texas without any sense of hope for the future. “The community is now embracing the idea that there is a new dawn for humanity,” Barnard said. “I find it awe-inspiring and beautiful.”
A city commissioner from Brownsville, Jessica Tetreau-Kalifa, noted that before SpaceX's decision to move to South Texas in 2013, the area was “the poorest community in the United States.” By coming to the region, she said, SpaceX has changed everything, from the perception of the region to its economic outlook. The company now employs more than 2,000 people locally, she said.