Rachael Gleason | Midland Reporter-Telegram (Midland, Texas)
It appears the mating rituals of the lesser prairie chicken are imposing on Midland International Airport’s pursuit of a spaceport license.
After the chicken was federally listed in March, the airport submitted an addendum to its environmental assessment explaining why the spaceport wouldn’t be a threat to the now “threatened” species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, worried about sonic booms negatively impacting the small chicken’s early-morning spring mating habits, has yet to approve the addendum.
But Midland Director of Airports Marv Esterly — who offered to send biologists to Andrews County to study how the first five launches would impact the chickens — fully expects the service to sign off and the Federal Aviation Administration to deliver a finding of “no significant impact.”
“They are really sensitive to what’s out there,” Esterly said during Tuesday’s Spaceport Development Corp. meeting. “We feel the sonic boom is so small — so much less than a thunder clap — that it won’t have an effect.”
After final approval of the environmental assessment, the FAA has until Sept. 15 to issue a spaceport license — a process that has taken nearly two years. Once approved, Midland International will become the first airport in the nation to offer commercial and space flights from its runways.
“We’re moving forward slowly — at a snail’s pace,” Esterly said. “But it’s a new concept. We’re also setting precedents for airports in the future. Everyone wants to make sure we get it right.”
Getting it right also involves tinkering with the airport’s zoning to protect flight corridors for XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx 1 spaceplane.
The 3-mile wide corridors extend 5 miles from each runway in an “X” pattern, according to a draft overlay presented Tuesday. Airport officials will hold their first reading of the draft and public hearing during the July 22 City Council meeting.
While existing land use and structures are grandfathered in, “there will be restrictions on new uses,” Esterly said.
Dissenters must go before the airport zoning board of adjustments, which City Attorney Keith Stretcher said will become a key player.
“It’s one of the few boards where the appeal doesn’t go to council; it goes to district court, so the council will never have the opportunity to review their decisions,” Stretcher said. “Those appointments are going to be very important.”
Also at the meeting, Spaceport Development Corp. members discussed their current budget of zero dollars.
The Office of the Governor earlier this year awarded Midland International $2 million from its Spaceport Trust Fund. But delivery of the money depends on approval of SpaceX’s private launch site in South Texas.
“They are going through the same process we are,” said Esterly, noting the Midland Community Development Corp. will front the money. “It takes time.”