Cameron County OKs SpaceX policy

Local leaders can close road for launches

BROWNSVILLE — Cameron County Commissioners Court approved an order Thursday morning allowing County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. to close Highway 4 and Boca Chica Beach during potential space flight activities.

The move comes nearly a week after Boca Chica Village SpaceX watchers first saw the booster portion of the Starship Hopper prototype moved to the construction site at the facility to the launch pad.

The order was approved after nearly 20 minutes of executive session where commissioners conferred with legal counsel regarding space flight activities.

After the meeting, Treviño said as county judge he has emergency authority to respond to anything from road or beach closures, as well as “whatever the case might be in relation to the upcoming potential space flight activities.”

Last Friday, SpaceX Spokesman James Gleeson said in an email that the Starship prototype was moved in preparation for non-public testing.

“SpaceX will conduct checkouts of the newly installed ground systems and perform a short static fire test in the days ahead,” Gleeson said. “Although the prototype is designed to perform sub-orbital flights, or hops, powered by the SpaceX Raptor engine, the vehicle will be tethered during initial testing and hops will not be visible from offsite.”

When that happens, Gleeson said a safety zone will be established.

“SpaceX will establish a safety zone perimeter in coordination with local enforcement and signage will be in place to alert the community prior to the testing,” Gleeson said.

Treviño said the county is on a learning curve as potential launches draw closer to becoming a reality.

“It’s exciting and we know that we keep moving closer and closer to that first test or whatever they’re going to be doing, and we’re wishing them all the best of luck and we’re excited,” Treviño said.

In another recent development, SpaceX founder Elon Musk confirmed on Twitter last week to his followers that a Raptor engine was moved to Boca Chica Beach and was scheduled to be mounted on the Starship Hopper prototype this week.

In 2013, former Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a bill granting Cameron County the authority to close beaches and access points to beaches for space flight activities.

“A person planning to conduct a launch in a county to which this section applies must submit to the commissioners court proposed primary and backup launch dates for the launch,” the bill states.

The legislation applies to any county bordering the Gulf of Mexico that has a launch site approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

However, when news of the county’s approval broke Thursday morning, Keith Reynolds, who lives four miles from SpaceX, contacted the newspaper to share an email he sent to Treviño and Cameron County Precinct 1 Commissioner Sofia C. Benavides about his concerns over closures.

“Something that has fallen through the cracks is property owner access during the road closures. SpaceX has not reached out to any of us that live along Hwy 4 past the Border Patrol checkpoint,” Reynolds wrote in the email. “I am currently working in Houston and travel back to my place on weekends. I live not too far from SpaceX and am concerned that I will be denied access to my property. What measures have been put in place to ensure this will not happen?”

FAA documentation shows that SpaceX will be able to limit public access at two pre-defined checkpoints, a soft checkpoint at the Border Patrol station, where the public could not pass, and a hard checkpoint, “just west of the control center area, where no one would be permitted to pass during launch operations.”

Those documents show that SpaceX is required to notify Cameron County Commissioners Court approximately two weeks in advance of a proposed date for a launch or a static test fire, which SpaceX confirmed will happen in the near future.

The FAA documentation also states that approximately three to six days before a launch operation that would require a closure, SpaceX must notify the public through local media, along with informing the cities of Brownsville and South Padre Island, as well as several state and federal agencies.