SpaceX plans to launch 90 rockets from Vandenberg Space Force Base by 2026. Could that hurt the coast?

SpaceX plans to launch 90 rockets into space from a military base in Santa Barbara County by 2026, tripling the number of blasts threatening the coastal community — and raising concerns from neighbors and environmental groups. about the impact on marine life.

Owned by billionaire Elon Musk, the number of rocket launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base has increased in recent years, and he has made it clear that he wants to increase the frequency of blasts. But during a California Coastal Commission hearing on Friday, US Space Force officials outlined for the first time their own plans to increase the number of launches from the base, from 37 in 2023 to more than 120 a year by 2026.

The vast majority of those rocket explosions would be made by SpaceX, which has already made more launches from the base than the commission approved.

Last year SpaceX violated an agreement with the commission that limited the number of launches to six, sending 28 rockets into space. He is currently seeking an agreement with the Commission to make 36 launches per year, increasing to 90 in 2026.

The commission’s decision, which is tasked with protecting the state’s coastal resources, will have a direct impact on residents and marine life near the military base that hear and feel the sonic boom of the rockets. It could also redirect the future of SpaceX, whose quest to redefine space exploration is already closely tied to US military interests, given its work as a military contractor.

“The ultimate goal is to make this more routine and not a big deal,” said Space Force Col. Bryan Titus, deputy commander of operations at the base.

Read more: SpaceX is launching more rockets from a military base. Can the Coastal Commission set a limit?

Founded in 2019, the US Space Force is looking to improve its ability to launch rockets into space, Titus said, so SpaceX’s ability to launch more often is an advantage for the US military.

SpaceX launched 96 rockets in 2023 from Vandenberg and three other facilities: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, and SpaceX Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

Environmental groups argue that a routine sailing event could have an impact on marine life.

“We are concerned that permanent changes to addresses will become more frequent,” said Ana Citrin, director of legal and policy for the Gaviota Coastal Conservancy.

Federal agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, monitor the effect of the explosions on animals such as sea otters, bats, western snowshoes, California terns and California red-legged frogs.

So far, the monitoring has shown that some of the animals may respond to the explosion by flushing, or fleeing from their nests and homes, but they return soon after, according to US Space Force officials. No long-term impact is seen, they said.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

Read more: Boeing is facing a critical launch on Monday carrying astronauts to the International Space Station

Flushing or hunting after a blast already has signs of stress, said Duncan Leitch, a professor of integrative biology at UCLA.

Most animals can adapt to rare events, but exposure to more frequent stressful events can change their biology as well as their behavior, he said.

In the worst cases, he said, the birds’ ability to communicate could be hindered, and migratory birds could avoid the area. Fish and other animals that use sound to communicate and navigate underwater – including whales – could also be affected.

“Over a longer period of time, there may be declines in fish populations as they move away from the sound, or they may be disturbed to the point that it affects their health,” Leitch said. “It would change the ecosystem as far as other animals that depend on the fish.”

“Sounds that are well into the harmful, or painful, range of decibels that are happening now [a hundred] once a year, the animals might not be able to change their behavior or attend to these types of sounds,” he said.

A number of environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, are calling on the Commission to prevent the increase.

Read more: SpaceX rocket launch propels satellite into low orbit, delivers booster back to Earth

SpaceX plans to “start scaling up very quickly, so this is a big concern for us,” said Mandy Sachett, senior California policy coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation.

More frequent explosions could change the way wildlife in the area responds in the long term, environmental groups said.

Members of the California Coastal Commission are also asking whether SpaceX should be entitled to bypass the permitting process, as are federal agencies. Federal entities negotiate agreements with the Commission but ultimately can move forward even if the Commission does not approve. In such cases, the Commission would resort to mediation or the courts.

Since SpaceX acts as a contractor for the US Space Force, military officials argue that all launch operations at the base by the company are “federal activities”.

But US Space Force officials said only 25% of the rockets sent by SpaceX into space are carrying payloads for the Department of Defense. The vast majority of explosions are for the company’s private benefit, raising questions about why SpaceX can waive permits when the US government does not involve 75% of its base explosions.

“That’s still skewed to me,” Commissioner Mike Wilson said during Friday’s meeting.

Several commissioners – who usually focus on environmental protection, development and water issues during their monthly meetings – also brought up the war in Ukraine during Friday’s debate.

“I question the national security public interest of concentrating so much power, literally communications power, in one company that we’re enabling in this situation,” Wilson said. “[SpaceX] It has already been shown that he will play in international conflicts at will.”

Read more: See the strange streak of light across Southern California? Rockets

Wilson was referring to reports that Musk’s company refused to allow Ukraine to use satellite internet service from Starlink, a subsidiary of SpaceX, to help it attack Russia in September 2022.

“If the idea is that we’re supporting these permits on the side that we’re advancing national defense, and then one company is able to dismantle our allies during an armed conflict – that doesn’t really align ,” said Commissioner Justin Cummings. . “I doubt that would violate our national defense strategies.”

Titus declined to address the issue, saying it was “out of my lane,” but said he would try to get answers to address the commissioners’ concerns.

Some commissioners also argued Friday that SpaceX, not US military officials, should be making the company’s case before the agency.

“When this comes back, I think it would be very important to have a representative from SpaceX come to the meeting,” Cummings said.

Cummings said it was “strange” that SpaceX was not present at the meeting, despite the agency’s repeated attempts to get SpaceX officials to speak.

“Obviously they refuse because they never showed up,” he said.

On Friday, Caryl Hart, the Commission’s Chairman, suggested that a deal might not be possible unless SpaceX changed its position.

“From my perspective,” Hart said, “I think we’re going to continue to hit significant hurdles to achieve federal consistency regulation without having SpaceX.”

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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