Legal Implications of Proposed NASA Area Spaceport
Last October I posted about the proliferation of private spaceports, the litigation they may generate and state legislative efforts to minimize the potential liability associated with them. The post discussed Virgin Galactic’s New Mexico Spaceport America, as well as SpaceX’s potential facility at the Boca Chica Beach in South Texas.
In the intervening months, the issue has moved closer to Houston’s NASA/Bay Area community, with discussion of converting Ellington Airport into a spaceport. This seems to be a very good fit. I’ve personally seen such cutting edge aircraft as the (piggybacked) Space Shuttle, B-2 bomber, Stealth fighter and the F-22 Raptor fly in and out of the facility. Turning it into a spaceport seems to be a simple matter of bringing in the next generation of air and spacecraft.
Houston’s KTRK and the Spaceports Blogspot report that Ellington has begun its FAA application process, which is expected to take between 15-18 months. This will include a required Environmental Impact Study. The proposal envisions spacecraft travelling over the Gulf of Mexico at Mach 3 or 4! This could be an issue. I recently flew on my friend’s private jet from Houston’s Hobby Airport to Galveston. The pilot told me that the maximum speed he was allowed to fly through the corridor was 250 mph. It seems difficult to believe that whatever is flying in and out of an Ellington spaceport could dial it down to that level.
The obvious difference in the New Mexico and Boca Chica ports on one hand, and Ellington on the other, is the presence of several million people around the latter. All three sites, however, are situated at or near environmentally sensitive areas. Hopefully the Environmental Impact Study will be comprehensive and meaningful, since the facility’s environmental effects will be a primary legal issue to address.
Beyond that, both the city and Texas legislature will need to determine whether additional legal protections for Ellington are warranted. For instance, will the involved parties need protection from suits for excessive noise, vibrations and other unforeseen consequences of the new vehicles? Or is a private spaceport no more of potential liability concern than a conventional airport? These issues will need to be carefully weighed. Hopefully this will be done, and the Clear Lake area’s continued place on the cutting edge of space exploration will be further advanced!