Science & Technology



Environmental concerns raised by rocket flights over San Diego County

Phil Diehl, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

"A battery is hazardous waste," said Commissioner Kristina Kunkel. "It's not comparable to fishing gear."

Air quality may be the first concern of anyone who has seen the rocket's long trail of vapor, yet the reported emissions are well below applicable state and federal standards. The fuel is rocket-grade kerosene combined with liquid oxygen. When it burns, it produces a negligible amount of soot and nitrogen oxide in the exhaust.

The U.S. Space Force and SpaceX, owned by electric-car magnate Elon Musk, have asked the Coastal Commission to approve an increase to as many as 36 launches a year at Vandenberg. The SpaceX launches averaged six annually over the past five years, although they have been increasing steadily, reaching a total of 19 in 2022 and 28 in 2023.

The company has been ramping up launches as it builds a network of nearly 42,000 Starlink satellites to provide worldwide direct-to-cell internet service. Each Falcon 9 rocket carries up to 22 satellites.

SpaceX also uses bases in Texas and Florida, and as of March had launched more than 5,500 satellites. The company has a roster of other launch customers, including NASA and the Pentagon.

The Coastal Commission reached no decision on the request Wednesday. Instead, the commissioners voted to postpone the matter so staffers can look further into the cumulative effects of the launches and return with more information in a month or longer.


Other private companies and federal agencies also launch rockets at Vandenberg. Last year, there were 37 launches in all, said Space Force Col. Bryan Titus, operations vice commander at the base.

"We're asking for 36 right now (for SpaceX alone), and we do plan to ask for more later," Titus said at Wednesday's commission meeting. The base has the capacity to do as many as 110 launches a year, which could increase with plans to build an additional launch platform.

The launches are allowed based on the Coastal Commission's previous determination that the environmental effects of the events are relatively insignificant. Also, there are questions about whether the state agency can regulate actions by the federal government that Titus said are vital to national security.

"All launches support the Defense Department and our allies," Titus said.


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