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Space Update

Brynn Shaffer
June 22, 20224:00 PM

Jenny Hautmann for Supercluster

June 21st, 2022

The FAA Gives SpaceX Homework

SpaceX moved one step closer to launching Starship into orbit when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a long-awaited assessment of the company’s proposed operations at Boca Chica (dubbed Starbase by SpaceX) in South Texas. In the assessment, SpaceX was met with an extensive list of peculiar action items which must be completed.

The FAA's concerns stem from locals who have had complaints about operations at Starbase, particularly from residents of the neighboring community, Boca Chica, where impacts could be seen on the surrounding wildlife and general quality of life.

SpaceX’s Starship prototypes are massive and are powered by the still-evolving Raptor engine. The launch system is an amalgam of the proven reusability technology being pioneered with numerous Falcon 9 and Dragon flights and is being designed to carry both crew and cargo to the moon and soon after, Mars. The reusability is key to Starship and making the vehicle's flight economically feasible.

And with all these aspirations, preparation has been long underway. Since November 2020, SpaceX has conducted numerous high-altitude flight tests with Starship prototypes. The vehicles are launched no more than 30,000 to 40,000 feet in the air before returning to land. Only one has successfully landed to live another day. The rest have ended in fiery explosions that spread debris across the area.

While SpaceX has been able to freely launch their testing prototypes without failure, they need to obtain a launch license from the FAA if they wish to actually launch Starship into orbit. On June 13, after a thorough investigation, the FAA concluded that SpaceX will be required to make 75 different environmental adjustments for this to even be considered.

The 43-page press release includes a broad scope of mitigation measures, including protections for water resources, limits on noise levels, and how to better control hazardous materials. Among the list of action items, SpaceX is required to coordinate with a “qualified biologist” to conduct lighting inspections in minimizing the lighting impacts to sea turtles, particularly during nesting season.

The FAA is also requiring SpaceX to operate and encourage the use of an employee shuttle between the city of Brownsville and Starbase to reduce the number of vehicles traveling to and from the project site.

Additionally, SpaceX will be required to perform quarterly cleanups of the local Boca Chica Beach, presumably due to the mass amount of rocket debris that lands in the ocean, as well as enhance access to fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico. The company will collaborate with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to restore wildlife habitats and even participate in wildlife photography. The report highlighted several species that may be endangered due to Starbase’s operations, including the ocelot, jaguarundi, piping plover, and red knot.

One of the more odd mitigation items requires SpaceX to prepare a book report of sorts detailing the events of the Mexican War and the Civil War battles that took place in the area that is now Starbase. The FAA also issued new rules for closing highway SH 4, ensuring the public road stays open for 18 listed holidays and most weekends. Beat reporters do appreciate this one as it may result in major operations being paused during these holidays.

Despite the out-of-the-box demands, SpaceX celebrated the FAA's assessment as a victory by viewing it as “one step closer” to receiving their launch license, as they were originally wanting to conduct orbital test flights starting last summer. 

CEO Elon Musk thinks they could launch as early as July and says the company will aim for a monthly cadence. Supercluster is tracking the mission and our team will be on-site for Starship's historic orbital launch.

Pauline Acaline for Supercluster

June 17th, 2022

NASA and Tom Delonge Walk Into a Bar

NASA recently announced plans to finance an independent study on the UAP phenomenon from a science and data-collecting perspective.

The term UAP was coined after the heavily stigmatized term “UFO” greatly fell out of fashion with defense-industry professionals. While they both mean essentially the same thing, referring to sightings of unexplainable airborne objects, the term UAP is being used by the Department of Defense so that their witnesses and reporting are taken seriously by the national media.

Princeton Astrophysicist David Spergel will lead the team and they will begin in the fall for a duration of nine months. The study, which is to cost less than $100,000, “will focus on identifying available data, how to best collect future data, and how NASA can use these data to move the scientific understanding of UAPs forward,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA. The agency says any findings will be shared publicly. 

According to a NASA press release, “there is no evidence that UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin.” However, it is not ruled out. In fact, it was only a month ago that a team from NASA’s JPL created a new message with hopes to reach foreign intelligence. Their message, called “Beacon in the Galaxy,” is just one of many attempts of METI, Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. NASA is also supporting the search for alien megastructures.

Unlike many topics in today's political climate, UAPs seem to be a greater bipartisan issue as it relates to national security. U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), as well as Congressman Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), came together to include a UAP amendment in the FY22 NDAA. “We always need air dominance to defend this country,” said Sen. Gillibrand.

When we observe something flying that cannot be explained, and when the government has no answer, we have nothing to do but speculate. Could it be China? Russia? Or is it possible that we are witnessing something beyond the capabilities of human technologies? Russia's perceived military might is now under question following its invasion of Ukraine and China has formed its own UAP working group and has been uncharacteristically vocal about its concerns regarding the phenomena. It is fair to say that China, Russia, the United States, and SpaceX have relatively the same public-facing spaceflight capabilities at this point.

Fascination with UFOs skyrocketed alongside rocketry development during World War II. This inspired “Project Blue Book" the code name the United States Air Force gave to secrete their own investigation of UAPs, in which they compiled over 12,000 sightings, during the years 1947-1969. 

In 2017, the New York Times published two videos recorded by navy pilots in 2004 and 2015 depicting what seemed to be aircraft defying the laws of physics. A few months later, To the Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences, "a transmedia aerospace, and entertainment company," co-founded by self-proclaimed UFO researcher and Blink-182 front-man Tom Delonge, released a third. And in 2020, the Pentagon confirmed all three videos were real. 

Less than a year later, Congress ordered the Pentagon to compile an extensive transcript of their data on UAPs in order to assess the threat posed by UAPs and the progress made by the Department of Defense Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF) in understanding this threat. The nine-page report mentioned 144 UAP sightings from 2004 to 2021.

The Pentagon defined their research as “largely inconclusive,” and was only able to identify one of the reported UAPs with high confidence. The outstanding 143 remain unexplained. 

NASA's announcement comes just weeks after Congress held a landmark hearing about UAPs, something that hasn’t been done in over 50 years. Previously classified images and videos were released depicting suspicious phenomena, though Pentagon officials testified under oath that the government has not collected materials from any alien landing on Earth. 

One video, in particular, captivated the committee. The footage, recorded from a fighter pilot’s cell phone shows a spherical object floating across several frames. As a whole, the congressional hearing served as a chance for lawmakers to acquire more information, as well as to vouch for greater transparency surrounding the broader investigation on UAPs.

While NASA’s study will remain independent from that of the Pentagon, the quest to declassify UAP research is certainly gaining traction. And although extraterrestrial speculation was once a topic of pure conspiracy, the government seems to be keeping an open mind about the verity of aerial phenomena, leaving the public wanting more.

Brynn Shaffer
June 22, 20224:00 PM