Elon Musk’s Plan to Expand SpaceX Launch Site in Texas Hits Another Snag

Elon Musk’s Plan to Expand SpaceX Launch Site in Texas Hits Another Snag
A fully stacked Starship rocket sits on a launch pad at the SpaceX Boca Chica launch facility in south Texas. (Photo: SpaceX)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has closed an application from SpaceX to expand its Boca Chica launch site in south Texas, saying the company failed to provide the necessary information.

The SpaceX request calls for the expansion of approximately 17 acres of potentially sensitive land, onto which it wants to build new launching and landing pads, integration towers, parking lots, stormwater mitigation elements, and other launch-related infrastructure. As this land includes wetlands, the SpaceX request requires the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who, under section 404 of the Clean Water Act, must ensure that no harm is done to natural resources or sources of drinking water.

But SpaceX failed to provide the requested information, compelling the Army Corps to suspend the company’s application. The Army Corpw/ s advised SpaceX of its decision in a letter dated March 7, which was only recently picked up by news outlets including Bloomberg. The suspended application serves up yet another complication for SpaceX, as it could cause further delays in the development of Starship — a gigantic rocket that will play a critical role in the 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 reached,” an Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson said in an email to Gizmodo.

The Boca Chica launch facility, or “Starbase,” as SpaceX refers to it, is located on private land in Cameron County and near the populated areas of Brownsville and South Padre Island. The site was recently the scene of spectacular launches and crashes as SpaceX performed suborbital tests of the Starship second stage. The Elon Musk-led company is pushing forward with the development of the fully integrated Starship, requiring the added infrastructure at Boca Chica. According to an Army Corps public notice from March 4, 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.

In its letter from March 7 (posted here by CNBC), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston District, stated that SpaceX “must submit a thorough alternatives analysis,” a “thorough public interest review,” and a formal “compensatory mitigation plan” to address the potential loss of aquatic resources. The Army Corps said it didn’t get the info despite repeated requests. “Therefore, your Department of Army Permit application is withdrawn,” the letter stated, to which it added: “This permit application process can be re-initiated by submitting a response addressing all of the comments/concerns.” SpaceX did not immediately responded to our request for an update to the current status of the application.

This past February, Musk said he would consider moving Starship operations to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to further the development of the megarocket. Once built, Starship will be the most powerful rocket in the world, surpassing that of NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS). SpaceX is under pressure to develop Starship as it is under a 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 it would make sense to convert it into a research and development facility.

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

Related: NASA: ‘The Mega Moon rocket is fine’ after disrupted launch rehearsal.