Sixteen months after ground was initially broken at Boca Chica—located about 20 miles (32 km) east of Brownsville, Texas, just northwest of the mouth of the Rio Grande—SpaceX is ready for an ambitious year of construction work at the place which will form its fourth active orbital launch facility, reportedly capable of 12 commercial missions per annum by 2025.
The Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services provider already supports operations out of Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. and expects to stage the maiden voyage of its mammoth Falcon Heavy vehicle from the newly-refurbished Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the coming months. Present plans call for the Boca Chica site to be completed next year, with its first launch anticipated in 2018. At the same time, on Monday, 25 January, the Air Force updated its baseline configuration for the Falcon 9 to the new “Upgraded Falcon 9”, which made its first flight last month.
The site lies at the southernmost tip of Texas, within Cameron County, directly adjacent to the eastern end of Texas State Highway 4 and about 3 miles (5 km) north of the Mexican border. Over the course of the last four years, SpaceX has explored a number of options for a commercial launch site—described as “the commercial Cape Canaveral”—with an initial focus upon seven locations, including South Texas. A draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was released by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in April 2013, revealing “no impacts” which might cause them to deny SpaceX a permit for a launch site at Boca Chica. Public hearings on the statement were held throughout the summer and in July 2014 the FAA released its Record of Decision, noting that SpaceX’s proposed facility “would have no significant impact on the environment”. This enabled SpaceX to formally announce the selection of Boca Chica in August 2014 and will allow the company to apply for FAA licenses to launch its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters.
As previously outlined by AmericaSpace, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk attended the formal ground-breaking ceremony on 22 September 2014. He was joined by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela—who represents the 34th Congressional district, at Texas’ southernmost tip, which includes Brownsville—and it was revealed that the Boca Chica site would support up to 12 launches per annum by 2025. To build it, SpaceX received $2.3 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF), as well as $13 million from the Spaceport Trust Fund to the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp., with Musk explaining that his company would invest around $100 million over three to four years. Boca Chica is expected to produce 300 long-term jobs and, when operational, should pump $85 million of capital investment into the local economy. Gov. Perry described it as continuing “our nation’s proud legacy of scientific advancement” and building upon “our pioneering heritage, our tradition of thinking bigger, dreaming bolder and daring to do the impossible”.
All launches will follow an easterly trajectory over the Gulf of Mexico and—in accordance with FAA environmental impact requirements—would mostly occur between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. local time, with the possibility of one flight per year in the hours of darkness. When complete, the site will house a pair of Launch Control Center (LCC) buildings, two payload processing facilities and a hangar for Upgraded Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy hardware, together with radio frequency transmitters and receivers, power generators and diesel storage locations, an area for propellant storage and associated infrastructure, including roads, parking areas, fencing, security, lighting and other utilities.
However, at the time of the ground-breaking ceremony, it was recognized that the heavy construction work at Boca Chica would likely not commence until the fall of 2015, due to SpaceX’s ongoing commitment to refurbish Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The latter—whose place on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places owes from its pivotal role in the early U.S. human space program, when it served as the point of departure for all six Apollo lunar landing missions, the Skylab space station and 82 shuttle flights—was leased from NASA in April 2014 and is expected to be used by SpaceX to launch the first Falcon Heavy booster in the next few months, as well as Upgraded Falcon 9 vehicles with crewed Dragon spacecraft, beginning next year. It has already received a large Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) on its “crawlerway” and in recent weeks has supported tests of the Falcon 9 Transporter-Erector (TE), together with fluid, electrical systems and propellant-loading operations associated with the just-returned first stage of the inaugural Upgraded Falcon 9.
With the Pad 39A refurbishment campaign now largely complete, and the maiden voyage of the Falcon Heavy expected to originate from the historic complex as soon as April 2016, it can be expected that the focus of SpaceX’s developmental attention will now shift to Boca Chica. At the time of the initial ground-breaking, Mr. Musk anticipated starting “more significant activity” in the third quarter of 2015, with an initial launch planned for as soon as late 2016. It has been suggested that SpaceX will mainly fly commercial geostationary missions from the site, thereby reducing the congestion in its Cape Canaveral manifest. However, although it is obligated to fly its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) and Commercial Crew missions from the East Coast, he did not rule out the possibility of future commercial piloted spaceflights originating from South Texas.
Six months after the ground-breaking, in March 2015, it was reported that the design of the launch site was nearing completion, as were approximately 100 acres—around 0.18 square miles (0.46 square km)—of land purchases, together with the establishment and activation of a SpaceX construction office and the posting of jobs “for critical positions”. It is also understood that SpaceX was “actively engaged in monitoring biological and environmental impacts, as was noted would take place in the project’s environmental impact statement.” By October of last year, land acquisition by SpaceX at Boca Chica had reached about 140 acres, equivalent to 0.22 square miles (0.56 square km). The Brownsville Navigation District reportedly pitched an additional 50 acres for SpaceX’s wetland mitigation plan, which is expected to be transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A recent article by Rio Grande Valley-based KRGV suggests that the tempo of construction will soon rise at Boca Chica. “Construction of SpaceX’s new launch site…is well underway,” it was noted in a report filed on 19 January. “There is not much out at SpaceX’s new launch site, just a few men and a bulldozer.” According to SpaceX spokesperson John Taylor, around 310,000 cubic yards (240,000 cubic meters) of Rio Grande Valley soil—“enough to cover a football field in 13 stories’-worth of dirt”—were expected to be trucked into the site between October 2015 and January 2016 to stabilize the ground, using a technique known as “soil surcharging”. Mr. Taylor explained last year that the new soil would be more suitable for supporting launch complex structures than native clay and sand. It is expected that Boca Chica will achieve completion in 2017, with a first launch a year later.
It is anticipated that the site may reach 12 launches per annum by 2025, including two flights each year by the gigantic Falcon Heavy—whose cluster of three Falcon 9 “cores” and a total of 27 Merlin 1D first-stage engines is expected to cement its credentials as the most powerful rocket in active operational service, anywhere in the world, surpassing United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Delta IV Heavy—and the remainder by Upgraded Falcon 9s and a variety of smaller reusable suborbital vehicles. “SpaceX’s launch site will soon become an invaluable economic driver for South Texas,” said Sen. Eddie Lucio of Texas’ 27th District. “With this site comes tens of millions of dollars in capital investment in our community, annually, and hundreds of well-paying jobs over the next decade. We’ve set up South Texas as a future leader in developing bleeding-edge space technology, which will influence future commerce for the whole planet.”
In addition to commercial launches to Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO), it remains possible that SpaceX may also delivery classified national security payloads from Boca Chica. In July 2014, AmericaSpace reported that the company had been officially certified by the Air Force as having completed three successful missions by the Falcon 9 v1.1, thus completing the first step towards securing full certification under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Program and clearance to bid for major national security contracts. Ten months later, in May 2015, Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, announced that SpaceX had achieved full certification of its Falcon 9 v1.1 for national security missions. Certification came after more than two years of work, a $60 million investment by the Air Force and more than 125 certification criteria, 21 major subsystems reviews and 700 audits.
Finally, on 25 January 2016, Lt. Gen. Greaves formally updated the certified baseline configuration of the Falcon 9 to its current incarnation: the Upgraded Falcon 9. “The certification process provides a path for launch-service providers to demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system and provide the mission assurance support required to deliver NSS satellites to orbit,” Lt. Gen. Greaves said. “This gives the Air Force confidence that the national security satellites will safely achieve the intended orbits with full mission capability.”