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

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

SpaceX, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, has increased the number of rocket launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base in recent years and has made clear it wants to increase the frequency of explosions. But at a California Coastal Commission hearing Friday, U.S. Space Force officials outlined for the first time their own plans to multiply the number of launches from the base, from 37 in 2023 to more than 120 per year by 2026.

The vast majority of these rocket blasts would be carried out by SpaceX, which has already made more launches from the base than the commission has approved.

Last year, SpaceX violated an agreement with the commission that limited the number of launches to six, sending 28 rockets into space. Currently, the company is pursuing an agreement with the commission to conduct 36 launches per year, increasing to 90 by 2026.

The decision by the commission, which is charged with protecting the state’s coastal resources, will have a direct impact on residents and marine life near the military base, who hear and feel the sonic booms of the missiles. It could also change the future of SpaceX, whose drive to redefine space exploration is already closely tied to U.S. military interests given its work as a military contractor.

“The ultimate goal is for this to become more routine and not a major problem,” said Space Force Col. Bryan Titus, vice commander of operations at the base.

Read more: SpaceX launches more rockets from a military base. Can the Coastal Commission impose a limit?

The US Space Force, created in 2019, has been trying to improve its ability to send rockets into space, Titus said, so SpaceX’s ability to launch with more frequency is a benefit to 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 turning launches into a routine event could impact marine life.

“We are concerned that more frequent launches will lead to permanent changes,” said Ana Citrin, legal and policy director for the Gaviota Coast Conservancy.

Federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, are monitoring the effect of the explosions on animals such as sea otters, bats, western snowy plovers, California least terns and California red-legged frogs.

So far, monitoring has shown that some animals may respond to the explosion by flushing or fleeing from their nests and homes, but they return shortly afterwards, according to U.S. Space Force officials. No long-term effects have been observed, they said.

SpaceX did not respond to request for comment.

Read more: Boeing faces a critical launch Monday, bringing astronauts to the International Space Station

Flushing or sinking after a blast are already signs that wildlife is showing signs of stress, says Duncan Leitch, a professor of integrative biology at UCLA.

Most animals can adapt to rare incidents, but exposure to more frequent stressful incidents can change both their biology and behavior, he said.

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

“Over an extended period of time, there may be a decline in the fish population as they move away from the sound, or they may be affected in a way that affects their health,” Leitch said. “It would change the ecosystem as much as other animals that depend on the fish.”

“With sounds well into the harmful or painful decibel range that now occurs [a hundred] times a year, the animals may not be able to change their behavior or adapt to these types of sounds,” he said.

Some environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, are asking the commission to prevent the increase.

Read more: SpaceX rocket launch sends advanced satellite into low orbit and returns booster to Earth

SpaceX “plans to grow very quickly, so we’re very concerned about this,” said Mandy Sachett, senior policy coordinator in California for the Surfrider Foundation.

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

Members of the California Coastal Commission also question whether SpaceX should have the right to bypass the permitting process, as federal agencies do. Federal entities negotiate agreements with the commission, but ultimately can proceed even if the commission does not approve. In such cases, the committee could appeal to mediation or the court.

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

But U.S. Space Force officials said only 25% of the rockets launched into space by SpaceX carry payloads for the Defense Department. The vast majority of detonations are for the company’s private benefit, raising questions about why SpaceX can forego permits when 75% of its base detonations do not involve the U.S. government.

“That, to me, is still pretty lopsided,” Commissioner Mike Wilson said during a meeting Friday.

Some commissioners – whose monthly meetings typically focus on environmental protection, development and water issues – also raised the war in Ukraine during Friday’s discussion.

“I question the public benefit to national security of concentrating so much power, literally communications power, in one company that we are enabling in this case,” Wilson said. “[SpaceX] has already shown that in international conflicts it will play according to the will of one man.”

Read more: See that strange streak of light across Southern California? Rocket ship

Wilson was referring to reports that Musk’s company refused to allow Ukraine to use satellite internet services from Starlink, a subsidiary of SpaceX, to help the country carry out an attack on Russia in September 2022.

“If the idea is that we are supporting these licenses on the side that we promote national defense, and that a single company is able to dismantle our allies during armed conflict, then that is really inconsistent,” said Commissioner Justin Cummings. . “I suspect that would conflict with our strategies around national defense.”

Titus declined to respond to the question, saying it was “beyond my scope,” but he said he would try to get answers to address the commissioners’ concerns.

Some commissioners also argued Friday that SpaceX, not U.S. military officials, should argue the company’s case before the agency.

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

Cummings said it was “ridiculous” that SpaceX did not appear at the meeting, despite multiple attempts by the agency to have SpaceX officials speak.

“They’re clearly refusing to do that because they never showed up,” he said.

On Friday, Commission Chairman Caryl Hart suggested an agreement might not be possible unless SpaceX changes its position.

“From my perspective,” Hart said, “I think we will continue to face significant obstacles in reaching a federal consistency ruling without SpaceX.”

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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