SpaceShipTwo has been going through a rigorous, sometimes difficult, flight testing process. While this somewhat public testing regime has been going on, the SpaceShipTwo family of vehicles have been trudging through the FAA launch licensure process. On Monday, SpaceShipTwo reached an important milestone in this journey, the FAA released a draft Environmental Assessment for the Launch and Reentry of SpaceShipTwo Reusable Suborbital Rockets at the Mojave Air and Space Port and has opened a window for request for comment on the plan.
An environmental assessment is required when the FAA takes a “major action.” Issuing experimental permits or launch licenses for suborbital spaceflight is considered a major action, therefore federal law requires that the FAA perform an environmental assessment. The EA examines the potential effects on plants, animals, air quality, and human health safety and culture in the area flights of SpaceShipTwo would have on the Kern County area.
NEPA, the federal law directing the creation of the EA, requires that at least one alternative to issuing the experimental permit be proposed. In this case, a “no action” alterative was examined. The EA points out that the minimal environmental effects would not occur, while sacrificing the positive socioeconomic impacts the proposed test flight program (up to 30 flights annually) would have on the area. In fact, the EA points out that “[w]ithout
obtaining the necessary experimental permits or launch licenses from the FAA, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo operations would potentially need to relocate to a new site, possibly resulting in an adverse impact to socioeconomics due to a loss of existing jobs at the Mojave Air and Space Port.” Potential relocation sites might include New Mexico’s Spaceport America, however the EA is supportive of issuing experimental permits and/or launch licenses for SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo operations in Mojave.
One potentially interesting line from this report states the following: “Multiple companies propose to operate SpaceShipTwo reusable suborbital rockets and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft at the Mojave Air and Space Port….” Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic both come to mind as operating companies, and are specifically mentioned in the EA, itself. Might this be an indication that TSC/Virgin/Scaled may supply the SpaceShipTwo platform to other operators in the future? Imagine an American Airlines-operated SpaceShipTwo, or a Southwest SpaceShipTwo! Would you take a quick jaunt to space on one?
The FAA invites interested parties to “submit comments on environmental issues and concerns” by April 13.
Links to the Federal Register Entry and the EA itself are below. The environmental assessment is actually an interesting read from a technical prospective as well because it sheds light on the proposed flight testing plan for SpaceShipTwo over the coming months.