by Douglas Messier
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to fight for SpaceX to receive federal approval to launch its Super Heavy/Starship system from the company’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Rio Grande Guardian reports:
Asked by veteran broadcaster Ron Whitlock of Ron Whitlock Reports whether he is concerned about losing SpaceX, Abbott said:
“What I am going to do if Biden interferes with the ability of SpaceX to launch from Boca Chica; I am going to be working every step of the way to make sure that they are going to be able to launch from Boca Chica. We heard the vision from Mr. Patel himself about what they are working on and our job is to make sure they are able to achieve their vision. And I have worked with Elon Musk very closely with regard to Tesla and the Giga factory in Austin, Texas. And we will be working with him very closely, every step of the way in Boca Chica for the future of SpaceX. We want that future and that vision to come from Boca Chica, from Brownsville, Texas.”
Whitlock followed up with: “And not to Florida?” Abbott responded: “Correct.”
Whitlock interviewed Abbott at an economic development event held recently at the Port of Brownsville. Since this event, SpaceX has learned that its application to expand its Boca Chica rocket launching site has hit a new hurdle.
The new hurdle is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended consideration of SpaceX’s proposal to expand Starbase on the grounds the company had failed to adequately respond to a series of questions about the plan the Corps had raised last May. The matter can be reopened if SpaceX responds with the requested information.
The Corps 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.
SpaceX had originally said Boca Chica was the only viable launch site. Earlier this year, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that if approval of the Texas site was delayed, the company would move operations to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX subsequently ramped up Super Heavy/Starship construction in the Sunshine State.
Musk’s company wants to build a launch complex near Pads 39A and 39B, which are being used for launches of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters and NASA’s Space Launch System, respectively. SpaceX also wants to develop a site situated north of that location which would be known as Pad 49. Environmental groups in Florida have raised objections to the Pad 49 plan.
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.
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. So, the FAA could approve launches from a pad SpaceX has already built. 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 and its likely impact on the review process here.
What SpaceX is looking for in the FAA’s PEA is a finding that launching the world’s most powerful rocket from Boca Chica would have no significant impact (FONSI) on the surrounding area. FAA could issue a FONSI subject to a number of conditions designed to limit the impact of launches and launch failures from the site.
However, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Park Service have raised serious questions about whether a FONSI can be issued even with conditions. A number of environmental groups have opposed SpaceX’s plans, saying launching the rocket is not compatible with the sensitive nature of the surrounding area.
There are several possible outcomes:
- FAA issues a FONSI with conditions, resulting in legal action by opponents that could tie up the project in court for years;
- FAA requires a much more rigorous environmental impact statement (EIS), a process that would take years and likely lead to a lawsuit from SpaceX;
- SpaceX sues to overturn an EIS decision, and in the meantime moves launch operations to Florida while continuing to use Boca Chica as a test site.
An EIS was originally conducted before the FAA granted approval for SpaceX to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from Boca Chica. The company abandoned those plans and began testing Starship prototypes at the site, which it named Starbase.
FAA decided that a less rigorous EA was required to approve launches of the even larger Super Heavy/Starship from the location. That in itself has proven controversial; opponents have argued that a full EIS should have been started when SpaceX changed its plans several years ago.