U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Suspends SpaceX’s Application to Expand Boca Chica Launch Facility

The purple line surrounds parts of SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility that has been developed. Additional facilities would be added below that area. The dotted line delineates SpaceX’s property line. The orange areas are unvegetated salt flats. The green areas are high marsh areas. (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Elon Musk’s controversial plan to launch SpaceX’s Super Heavy/Starship system from Boca Chica, Texas has hit another snag as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has suspended review of the company’s application for an expansion of its Starbase spaceport. The reason: SpaceX’s failure to provide additional information requested from the company on May 21, 2021. The application can be revived if SpaceX provides the requested information.

The Corps of Engineers sent a letter to SpaceX dated March 7 that lists a number of deficiencies in the application. The overriding concern is that SpaceX eliminated alternative locations — Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California — without providing a thorough analysis of why those sites were not viable.

In February, however, Musk said during a presentation he gave at Boca Chica that if government approvals to launch Super Heavy/Starship from Boca Chica were seriously delayed, SpaceX would relocate operations to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. In fact, SpaceX has begun construction of production and launch facilities at KSC.

Credit: FAA

The Corps is evaluating how the expansion of SpaceX’s permit would affect 17.16 acres of land adjacent to SpaceX’s current footprint at Boca Chica. The expansion would involve the “addition of test, orbital, and landing pads, integration towers, associated infrastructure, stormwater management features and vehicle parking. The proposed expansion will impact 10.94 acres of mud flats, 5.94 acres of estuarine wetlands, and 0.28 acres of non-tidal wetlands,” according to the Corps’ project description.

The review is being done 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 north of the Mexican border. 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 didn’t buy SpaceX’s argument that Boca Chica is the only viable launch location because its close proximity to Super Heavy and Starship production facilities the company has already built.

SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility. A purple line extends around the developed areas of the site. New facilities are at the bottom. (Credit: SpaceX with Parabolic Arc labels)

“The siting criteria requiring use of the existing infrastructure (Criteria 9) eliminates, without any additional considerations, all alternatives not located in Boca Chica. SpaceX has indicated in the DPEA [draft programmatic environmental assessment] it is considering additional launch (which includes landing for suborbital missions) and reentry locations for the Starship/Super Heavy program beyond the Boca Chica Launch Site,” the letter said.

“The siting criteria definition requiring proximity to SpaceX‚Äôs existing Starship/Super Heavy production facilities in Boca Chica (Criteria 14) clearly states the Vandenburg and Cape Canaveral alternatives are not considered under this criterion but the document shows that Criteria 14 only eliminates one offsite alternative,” the document added.

The letter also said the close location of the production facility and launch pad violates another criteria stipulated in regulations.

“The geographic diversity (Criteria 13) states the launch site must be in a different place in order to diversify risk and operations. The criterion conflicts with the previous two 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,” the document said.

Some people are arguing on various Internet sites that the Corps application only covers expansion for a second Boca Chica launch pad and is separate from the PEA document being prepared by the FAA. However, an expert in the subject who writes under the name ESG Hound said that is not so.

“The land covered in the Corps application covers all the stuff in the PEA, including support buildings and other site infrastructure. The two actions are intimately intertwined but go ahead in thinking this is some Elon Musk 4D Chess,” he tweeted.

You can read his full analysis of the Corps’ decision here.

SpaceX’s Boca Chica plans have been criticized by environmental groups that argue that it is 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’s likely that environment would sue.

Others have said that the environmental assessment is insufficient, and that a more thorough and time-consuming environmental impact statement (EIS) is needed that could take years. An EIS was conducted before the FAA approved the Boca Chica site for up to 12 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches annually. However, Super Heavy/Starship is a much larger booster that will have larger impacts on the surrounding wetlands.