SpaceX Starbase launch site in Texas has another problem

A fully stacked Starship rocket sits on a launch pad at the SpaceX Boca Chica Launch Facility in South Texas.

A fully stacked Starship rocket sits on a launch pad at the SpaceX Boca Chica Launch Facility in South Texas.
Photo: SpaceX

The US Army Corps of Engineers has closed a request from SpaceX to expand its Boca Chica launch site in southern Texas, saying the company failed to provide necessary information.

SpaceX’s request calls for the expansion of approximately 17 acres of potentially sensitive land, on which it wants to build new launch and landing pads, integration towers, parking lots, water mitigation features storm drains and other launch-related infrastructure. As this terrain includes wetlands, SpaceX’s request requires approval from the US Army Corps of Engineers which, under section 404 of the Clean Water Act, must ensure that no harm is done to natural resources or drinking water sources.

But SpaceX did not provide the requested information, forcing the Army Corps to suspend the company’s application. The army corpsinformed SpaceX of its decision in a letter dated March 7, which was only recently picked up by the media including Bloomberg. The suspended app is another complication for SpaceX, as it could lead to further delays in the development of Starship, a gigantic rocket that will play a vital role in upcoming Artemis missions to the moon. SpaceX is currently awaiting the results of a separate environmental assessment from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Without the requested information, the permit modification process cannot continue because an informed decision cannot be made,” a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers said in an email to Gizmodo.

The Boca Chica launch facility, or “Starbase,” as SpaceX calls it, is located on private land in Cameron County and near the populated areas of Brownsville and South Padre Island. The site has recently been the scene of spectacular spear and accidents as SpaceX performed suborbital tests of the Starship’s second stage. The Elon Musk-led company is advancing development of the fully integrated Starship, requiring Boca Chica’s additional infrastructure. According to an army corps public notice as of March 4, the proposed expansion will impact 10.94 acres of mudflats, 5.94 acres of estuarine wetlands and 0.28 acres of non-tidal wetlands.

In his letter of March 7 (posted here per CNBC), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston District, said SpaceX “must submit a thorough analysis of alternatives,” a “thorough public interest review,” and a formal “compensatory mitigation plan” to make to the potential loss of aquatic resources. . The corps said it did not get the information despite repeated requests. “Therefore, your Department of the Army permit application is withdrawn,” the letter reads, to which it adds, “This permit application process may be restarted by submitting a response addressing all comments/concerns.” SpaceX did not immediately respond to our request for an update on the current status of the application.

Last February, Musk mentioned he would consider moving Starship operations to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center in Florida to continue development of the mega-rocket. Once built, Starship will be the most powerful rocket in the world, surpassing that of NASA’s next rocket Space Launch System (SLS). SpaceX is under pressure to develop Starship as it is under contract with NASA to provide a lunar lander for the Artemis 3 mission to the Moon, which is scheduled to launch no earlier than 2025. As for the Boca Chica site, Musk said that it would make sense to turn it into a research and development center.

That Starship operations will have to be moved to Florida is a distinct possibility. The pending Army Corps permit is a complicating factor, but the pending FAA approval is another matter altogether. The FAA must decide whether a full environmental impact statement is required, which, if it is, could take months or even years. It’s no wonder Musk is looking to Florida. The FAA is expected to announce its decision on April 29.

Related: NASA: “Mega Moon rocket is fine” after interrupted launch rehearsal.

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