SpaceX Gets Unwelcome News from Army Corps of Engineers

SpaceX Gets Unwelcome News from Army Corps of Engineers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has withdrawn SpaceX’s application to expand its Boca Chica, TX test site because the company failed to provide required information requested last year. The environmental evaluation by the Corps is in addition to a separate ongoing environmental review by the Federal Aviation Administration.

SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy rocket stacked for the first time at  Starbase in Boca Chica, TX. August 6, 2021. The first stage, Super Heavy, is silver. The second stage, Starship, is covered in black thermal protection tiles. The two stages combined also are referred to as Starship. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility has become well known as the site where the reusable Starship is assembled and tested. The second stage of the two-stage vehicle has flown to about 10,000 feet altitude five times, but crashed and exploded on landing the first four times. The fifth time was a success.

The first stage, Super Heavy, has not flown yet. SpaceX founder Elon Musk hopes to make the first orbital flight of the combined first and second stages, which also is referred to as Starship, in the next several months.

The company has expansive plans for Starship to launch both cargo and people. Musk already has signed commercial deals to launch the first crewed flight to Earth orbit and around the Moon.  He also is under contract to NASA to use Starship as a Human Landing System in 2025 to get astronauts from lunar orbit down to and back from the Moon’s surface as part of the Artemis program. His longer term vision is sending a million people or more to Mars.

To begin achieving those goals, Musk wants to expand the Boca Chica site, or Starbase as Musk calls it, which in turn requires permission from the federal government to ensure it complies with environmental regulations. Bordering the Gulf of Mexico, the area includes wetlands and special aquatic sites. It also is close to the city of Brownsville, TX.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation promotes, facilitates and regulates the commercial space launch and reentry business. It has been conducting an Environmental Assessment since September 2021 when it issued a Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA). Public hearings were held in October and the public could submit comments through November. The FAA has repeatedly delayed issuing its Final PEA in part because it takes time to review the more than 18,000 comments that were received. At the moment, it plans to issue the Final PEA on April 29, but it could slip again.

The Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a separate review that began in March 2021. According to the Corps’ Public Notice, 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.”

SpaceX photo of Starbase in Boca Chica, TX, with Starship/Super Heavy on the launch pad.

As first reported this evening by Bloomberg News, the Corps sent a letter to SpaceX on March 7 (which CNBC posted on its website tonight) outlining deficiencies with the company’s application that still have not been answered. Consequently “your Department of the Army Permit application is withdrawn.”

That is not the end of the line, however. The letter also says SpaceX can reinitiate the process by responding to the questions that were asked.

In February, standing in front of Starship, Musk said he was “highly confident” Starship would reach Earth orbit this year while acknowleding that he still did not have environmental approval from the FAA. He did not mention the Corps of Engineers’ review.

At the time, the FAA expected to render its judgment in March as to whether a full Environmental Impact Statement is required instead of just an Environmental Assessment. If so, that would “set us back for quite some time,” Musk said, and likely would mean shifting operations to Kennedy Space Center in Florida and using Starbase only for research and development and testing. But moving to KSC would require building a launch tower there, which he said would take 6-8 months. SpaceX currently launches Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from KSC’s Launch Complex 39-A, but Starship requires different launch infrastructure. For the longer term, Musk envisions off-shore launch platforms where frequent launches of this huge rocket could take place “without disturbing people too much.”

Musk jokes about his poor track record in estimating timeframes and it is unclear when the rocket will be ready notwithstanding regulatory approvals.

Both stages are powered by SpaceX’s own Raptor engines. The first launch will use 29 on the first stage and six on the second. Future versions will have 33 on the first stage. Musk has tweeted about the challenges producing the engines, calling it a “crisis” the day after Thanksgiving. In the February update he reported progess, but added that “the only remaining issue that we’re aware of is melting the chamber. That thing really wants to melt. It’s a gigawatt amount of heat.”

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter from the Corps. Musk communicates with the public largely through Twitter, but by press time had not tweeted about this.

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