US Army Corps of Engineers Suspends SpaceX Request to Expand Boca Chica Launch Facility – Parabolic Arc
by Douglas Messier
Elon Musk’s controversial plan to launch SpaceX’s Super Heavy/Starship system from Boca Chica, Texas hit another snag as the US Army Corps of Engineers suspended consideration of the company’s application for the launch. expansion of its Starbase spaceport. The reason: SpaceX’s failure to provide the additional information requested from the company on May 21, 2021. The application can be relaunched if SpaceX provides the requested information.
The Corps of Engineers sent a letter to SpaceX on March 7 which lists a number of shortcomings in the app. The main concern is that SpaceX eliminated alternate locations — Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California — without providing a thorough analysis of why those sites weren’t viable.
In February, however, Musk said during a presentation he gave in Boca Chica that if government approvals to launch Super Heavy/Starship from Boca Chica were seriously delayed, SpaceX would move operations to Kennedy Space Center (KSC ) from NASA in Florida. In fact, SpaceX has begun construction of production and launch facilities at KSC.
The Corps is assessing how SpaceX’s license expansion would affect 17.16 acres of land adjacent to SpaceX’s current footprint in Boca Chica. The expansion would involve “the addition of test, orbital and landing platforms, integration towers, associated infrastructure, stormwater management functions and vehicle parking lots. The proposed expansion will have impacting 10.94 acres of mudflats, 5.94 acres of estuarine wetlands and 0.28 acres of non-tidal wetlands,” according to the Corps project description.
The review is being conducted in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of SpaceX’s plan to expand the Spaceport and launch Super Heavy/Starship vehicles from the location just below. north of the Mexican border. The FAA originally planned to complete the PEA by the end of last December; however, the estimated completion date is now April 28.
In its March 7 letter, the Corps of Engineers said it does not accept SpaceX’s argument that Boca Chica is the only viable launch location due to its proximity to Super Heavy and Starship production facilities. that the company has already built.
“The siting criteria requiring the use of existing infrastructure (Criterion 9) eliminates, without any additional consideration, all alternatives not located in Boca Chica. SpaceX stated in the DPEA [draft programmatic environmental assessment] it is considering additional launch (which includes landing for suborbital missions) and re-entry locations for the Starship/Super Heavy program beyond the Boca Chica launch site,” the letter states.
“The definition of siting criteria requiring proximity to SpaceX’s existing Starship/Super Heavy production facilities in Boca Chica (criterion 14) makes it clear that the Vandenburg and Cape Canaveral alternatives are not considered in this criterion, but the document shows that criterion 14 eliminates only one off-site alternative,” the document adds.
The letter also states that the location near the production facility and launch pad violates another criterion stipulated in the regulations.
“Geographical diversity (criterion 13) states that the launch site must be located in a different location in order to diversify risks and operations. The criterion conflicts with the two previous criteria mentioned above and it eliminates from further consideration all on-site alternatives that would be co-located with the existing launch facility at Boca Chica, including the preferred alternative,” indicates the document.
Some people argue on various websites that the Corps’ request only covers the expansion of a second Boca Chica launch pad and is separate from the PEA document being prepared by the FAA. However, an expert on the subject who writes as ESG Hound said that is not the case.
“The land covered by the Corps request covers all elements of the PEA, including support buildings and other site infrastructure. The two actions are intertwined, but go ahead thinking it’s Elon Musk 4D Chess,” he tweeted.
You can read his full analysis of the Corps decision here.
SpaceX’s Boca Chica plans have come under fire from environmental groups who argue they are inappropriate due to a number of endangered and threatened species that reside in the area. Even if the federal government approves the expansion and launches, it is likely that the environment will continue.
Others said the environmental assessment is insufficient and that a more thorough and lengthy environmental impact statement (EIA) is needed, which could take years. An EIS was performed before the FAA approved the Boca Chica site for up to 12 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches per year. However, Super Heavy/Starship is a much larger booster that will have greater impacts on surrounding wetlands.