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NASA Sounding Rockets Program: Poker Flat Research Range Environmental Impact Statement

Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Sounding Rockets Program at Poker Flat Research Range (PFRR)

Project Announcement Board

Website updated January 10, 2014.

NASA issues a Record of Decision (ROD) for the PFRR EIS

In its ROD, NASA selected for implementation Alternative 1, Environmentally Responsible Search and Recovery. The selected alternative includes a funded Recovery Program, which applies to PFRR-launched sounding rocket hardware from both historic and future missions.

The ROD is available online and may be viewed here.

The members of the PFRR EIS project team would like to thank all of the agencies, organizations, and individuals for their very helpful input in developing the EIS. We look forward to continued coordination with you. For further information regarding the project's environmental planning process, please contact Josh Bundick at (757) 824-2319 or at Joshua.A.Bundick@nasa.gov.

The Final PFRR EIS and its Appendices are available online and may be viewed here.

The Draft PFRR EIS and its Appendices are still available online and may be viewed here.

National Environmental Policy Act

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) established a national policy to protect the environment by requiring Federal agencies to consider the effects of their actions on the human environment prior to implementation and to give the public the opportunity to participate in the planning process. NASA has prepared an EIS to consider the potential effects from its proposed continuation of its Sounding Rockets Program (SRP) at PFRR. This EIS has been written to fulfill NASA's obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Council on Environmental Quality's (CEQ) regulations implementing NEPA (40 Code of Federal Regulations [CFR] Parts 1500 through 1508), and NASA's Procedural Requirements (NPR) for implementing NEPA (NPR 8580.1). As two other Federal agencies, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), would undertake connected actions to NASA's proposed action, the EIS has also been developed to fulfill those agencies' respective obligations under NEPA.

Background

In 2000, NASA published a Final Supplemental EIS (FSEIS) for the SRP. The 2000 FSEIS considered SRP operations at a programmatic level and expanded upon the original SRP EIS prepared in 1973 to include multiple launch sites, new launch vehicles, and updated environmental conditions. In its Record of Decision (ROD) for the 2000 FSEIS, NASA decided to continue SRP operations at its current level of effort at all launch sites, including PFRR. Since then, NASA has launched approximately four (4) sounding rockets annually from PFRR during the winter months. It is expected that this launch rate at PFRR would continue to satisfy NASA's needs into the reasonably foreseeable future.

NASA recently reviewed its 2000 SRP FSEIS and determined that that the overall environmental analysis in the 2000 SRP FSEIS remains sufficient to support the Agency's broad programmatic decision to continue the SRP, however potential changes in both PFRR operations and the environmental context of the launch corridor north of PFRR warranted the preparation of additional PFRR-specific environmental analysis to better inform Agency decisions regarding PFRR. For example, PFRR is now considering a more rigorous rocket and payload recovery process. Additionally, a large portion of downrange lands are undergoing Wilderness review, which could ultimately affect how rocket and payload recoveries are handled.

Accordingly, NASA began the preparation of an Environmental Assessment (EA) to determine if those changes potentially presented a significant impact necessitating an EIS. During the scoping process for the EA in the fall of 2010, NASA solicited input from over 75 potentially interested agencies and organizations. A number of conservation organizations expressed concern regarding NASA's continued operations at PFRR and requested that a more detailed assessment be performed. As such, NASA decided that an EIS would be the most appropriate level of NEPA documentation for the proposal. The subject EIS tiers from the programmatic 2000 FSEIS and provides a focused analysis of SRP operations at PFRR.

Proposed Action

The Proposed Action is to continue sounding rocket operations at the PFRR, Alaska.

Alternatives

The FEIS evaluates five alternatives in detail, including the No Action Alternative.

Elements Common to All Alternatives

Under all five alternatives, NASA would continue to fund UAF's PFRR and conduct scientific investigations using sounding rockets. NASA forecasts that an average of about four launches per year would be conducted at PFRR, but could range up to eight launches per year.

Similarly, past scientific research has mandated that most launches be conducted during the winter months. This is the expected mode of future operations.

NASA would continue to avoid planned impacts within Arctic Refuge Mollie Beattie Wilderness Area in all alternatives.

No Action Alternative

Under this alternative, no significant efforts would be taken to recover spent stages unless desired for programmatic reasons, and payloads would be recovered as planned by the scientists. Thus, recovery efforts and impacts would primarily be focused on retrieval activities associated with recovery of parachuted payloads.

Alternative 1 (Environmentally Responsible Search and Recovery)

In consideration of the analysis performed and comments received during the EIS process, NASA has identified Alternative 1 as its Preferred Alternative.

Under Alternative 1, NASA and UAF would employ enhanced efforts to locate new and existing spent stages and payloads within the PFRR flight corridor. Attempts would be made to recover all newly expended stages and payloads predicted to land on Federal, state, or private lands. Spent stages and payloads that are located would be recovered if it is determined that the recovery operation can be performed safely while causing minimal environmental damage. As such, some items or parts thereof could be left in the field if the landowners agree that attempted recovery could cause more damage to the environment than leaving it in place. A key component of this alternative is the development of a formal rocket hardware Recovery Plan.

For past SRP operations at PFRR, most spent rocket stages and payloads have not been recovered. Consistent with the philosophy that would be employed for new rocket motors and payloads, hardware that is located from past operations would be recovered if it could be done safely and in an environmentally responsible manner.

Alternative 2 (Maximum Cleanup Search and Recovery)

Alternative 2 is the same as Alternative 1, except maximum practicable effort would be exerted to fully recover newly expended and existing spent stages and payloads from PFRR if it is determined that they can be recovered safely, even if the efforts result in greater recovery-related environmental impacts.

Alternative 3 (Environmentally Responsible Search and Recovery with Restricted Trajectories)

Alternative 3 is the same as Alternative 1, except trajectories of future sounding rocket missions would be restricted such that planned impacts would not be permitted within designated Wild or Scenic River corridors. The restriction would be an extension of the existing prohibition on having planned impacts within Mollie Beattie Wilderness Area and would become a program requirement that must be met during mission planning. The restriction on planned impacts within Mollie Beattie Wilderness Area would remain in effect.

Alternative 4 (Maximum Cleanup Search and Recovery with Restricted Trajectories)

Alternative 4 would be the same as Alternative 2, except that like Alternative 3, NASA would restrict the flight trajectories of future PFRR missions such that planned impacts would not be located within Wild or Scenic River corridors or Mollie Beattie Wilderness Area.

Alternatives Considered but Dismissed from Detailed Study

NASA also considered additional alternatives but did not evaluate them in detail due to their inability to meet its purpose and need, largely due to an inability to achieve scientific goals, safety concerns, exorbitant cost, or a combination of the three. These alternatives included discontinuing operations at PFRR; relocating operations to other high-latitude launch sites, both foreign and domestic; use of other scientific platforms; tracking all stages and payloads until ground impact; installing recovery systems on all future payloads; assigning numerical risk criteria to sensitive environmental features; and launching easterly into Canada. An additional alternative dismissed was the use of heavy mechanical equipment for the full recovery of items.

Public Involvement

Scoping

NASA published a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare the EIS and conduct scoping in the April 13, 2011 edition of the Federal Register. During the scoping period, NASA held public meetings in Fort Yukon, Fairbanks, and Anchorage, Alaska to discuss the proposal with interested parties and solicit input on environmental concerns and alternatives that should be considered in the Draft EIS. Comments were requested by June 1, 2011.

Concerns raised during the scoping period focused primarily on potential effects on downrange lands, including wilderness character, subsistence uses, recreation, and wildlife. NASA considered all comments received during the scoping period in preparing the Draft EIS.

Review of Draft EIS

Similar to the scoping process, NASA solicited comments regarding changes to the Draft EIS. Comments were requested by November 28, 2012.

Concerns raised during the Draft EIS comment period focused primarily on potential effects on downrange lands, including wilderness character, subsistence uses, recreation, and wildlife. NASA considered all comments received during the Draft EIS comment period in preparing the FEIS.

Additionally, our project team hosted several public meetings in Alaska to discuss the Draft EIS with interested parties. NASA would like to thank everyone who attended the public meetings held in Anchorage and Fairbanks the week of October 22, 2012. Public meetings were held at the following times and locations:

Date and Time Address City
Wednesday, 10/24/12
6 - 8 p.m.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Regional Office, 1011 East Tudor Road Anchorage
Thursday, 10/25/12
6 - 8 p.m.
BLM Fairbanks District Office, 1150 University Avenue Fairbanks

A copy of the presentation shown at these meetings is available for download by clicking here.

Review of Final EIS (FEIS)

NASA is now requesting agencies, organizations, and members of the public to review the FEIS. Notices of Availability of the FEIS documents are being published in the Federal Register, through local news media, and on this website to ensure that all members of the public have the ability to actively participate in the NEPA process.

NASA will issue a Record of Decision (ROD) based on the FEIS no sooner than 30 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Notice of Availability (NOA) of the FEIS. NASA's ROD will be made available, once issued, on this website and upon request.

Questions about the document or requests for copies submitted by mail should be addressed to:

Joshua A. Bundick
Manager, Poker Flat Research Range EIS
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility
Code 250.W
Wallops Island, Virginia 23337

Questions or requests for copies may also be submitted via e-mail to:

Joshua.A.Bundick@nasa.gov.

If you would like to call NASA with any questions about the document or to request a copy, please call 757-824-2319.

A toll-free telephone number, (800) 521-3415, is also available for persons outside the local calling area. When using the toll-free number, please follow the menu options and enter the "pound sign (#)" followed by extension numbers "2319."

Cooperating Agencies

The following agencies have served as Cooperating Agencies in the preparation of this EIS as they possess both regulatory authority and specialized expertise regarding the Proposed Action that is the subject of the FEIS.

The Geophysical Institute-University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) owns/manages the PFRR and conducts launch and recovery operations on behalf of NASA.

The USFWS-managed Yukon Flats and Arctic National Wildlife Refuges issue authorizations to UAF for rocket and payload impact and recovery. Continued issuance of these authorizations would be necessary for PFRR to continue launching within its existing flight zones.

The BLM's Eastern Interior Field Office also owns/manages land parcels affected by payload impact and recovery and issues authorizations to UAF that would be necessary to continue launching.

Additional Information

NASA WFF Sounding Rockets Program

NASA's SRP, based at WFF, supports the NASA Science Mission Directorate's strategic vision and goals for understanding the phenomena affecting the past, present, and future of Earth and the solar system and supports the Agency's educational mission. The suborbital missions enabled by the SRP provide researchers with opportunities to build, test, and fly new instrument concepts while simultaneously conducting world class scientific research. With its hands-on approach to mission formulation and execution, the SRP also helps ensure that the next generation of space scientists receives the training and experience necessary to move on to NASA's larger, more complex missions.

The NASA Sounding Rockets Program Office (SRPO) plans, organizes, and directs the NASA SRP. The SRPO:

  • Provides program interface with NASA Headquarters, other government agencies, universities, private industry, and the international community.
  • Provides suborbital services (consultation, vehicles, hardware, payload services, and launch operations.
  • Provides technical management for research and development and new technology efforts (feasibility studies, design studies, carrier and systems development, test and evaluation, and data analysis and reporting).
  • Obtains range services for sounding rocket launches.
  • Manages NASA's SRP activities at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, and the PFRR, Alaska.
  • Provides payload and mission management for Student Launch Sounding Rocket Flight Projects.
  • Manages the NASA University grants and contracts for assigned principal investigators.
  • Ensures that International Agreements, Contracts, Memoranda of Understanding, and Joint Project Implementation Plans are in place to accomplish the sounding rocket mission at domestic and foreign locations.

For more information regarding the WFF SRPO please visit their website:

Poker Flat Research Range

The PFRR, located northeast of the unincorporated village of Chatanika, Alaska, consists of approximately 2,100 hectares (5,200 acres) of land that house rocket and payload support facilities, launch pads, and tracking infrastructure. Since the late 1960s, NASA, other government agencies, and educational institutions have supported suborbital rocket launches from the PFRR. While the PFRR is owned and managed by the Geophysical Institute of UAF, the NASA SRP has exclusively funded and managed the support contract with PFRR for more than 25 years.

The northern location of the PFRR is strategic for launching sounding rockets for scientific research in auroral space physics and earth science. The PFRR is the only high-latitude, auroral-zone rocket launching facility in the United States where a sounding rocket can readily study the aurora borealis and the sun-earth connection. Recent earth science-based missions have furthered the understanding of ozone depleting substances in the upper atmosphere. Such studies are critical for the continual refinement of theories and research on the topics of ozone depletion, global warming, and climate change. Recent space physics-focused missions have measured the upper atmospheric winds and auroras in the ionosphere. The information collected further assists the nation's scientists in understanding the interactions between the sun and earth as well as the origin and evolution of the solar system. Technology development and validation enabled by the SRP at the PFRR is critical in furthering the development of earth and space science instruments at a fraction of the size and cost that would result from using other launch methods. The PFRR facility also supports educational outreach programs where students and scientists from various universities are able to conduct aeronautics and space research.

For more information regarding PFRR please visit their website:

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