Road construction at SpaceX’s planned Texas spaceport


Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

Capitalism in space: A $3 million road project at SpaceX’s planned spaceport at Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville, Texas, is moving forward.

The key tidbit from the article however is this:

Besides the property tax breaks and incentives that Cameron County and other entities around the RGV have already offered SpaceX to come to the Valley, Garcia said they’ll continue to do what it takes to stay on target for a 2018 launch. “Every month we’re going to be on the map,” he said.

It appears that the reason work on the spacepad itself has seemingly stalled is because SpaceX has been waiting for this road work by the state to be completed. Either way, they are aiming for a first launch next year. At that time SpaceX should have four launchpads, 2 in Florida, one in California, and one in Texas.

Share

15 comments

  • LocalFluff

    I’ve read that they’ve put a small mountain of dirt on the ground of the launch pad, then wait a couple of years for the ground to get compacted by the weight, before they remove it and build the launch pad. Sounds long winded to me. Is that how sky scrapers are build? In swamps like Mexico City and St. Petersburg? If that effort and time is needed for a launch pad, however is fuel supposed to be launch from the Moon without caterpillars to build this kind of infrastructure? How were Apollo launched from there? How are satellites launched at sea from barges and submarines?

    I don’t get this launch pad thing. Sometimes this pad thing is extremely hard and upholds space programs for years (like in Russia today, right?) But sometimes it is as easy as putting a trellis together in your back yard.

  • wayne

    LocalFluff–
    As a general rule– the foundation is always supported by columns that go down to bedrock. Nothing with any substantial weight is ever just constructed on a piece of land.
    –you wind up with settling and/or “slab-heave.”

  • Tom Billings

    Wayne said:

    “As a general rule– the foundation is always supported by columns that go down to bedrock.”

    Yes, but it seems a site next to a millions years old river mouth, with huge amounts of sediment, deposited from a huge drainage basin, wasn’t the place to look for bedrock within depths that are useful. So another technique will be used.

    Glad to hear the road work is finally getting done.

  • Tom Billings

    Local said:

    “If that effort and time is needed for a launch pad, however is fuel supposed to be launch from the Moon without caterpillars to build this kind of infrastructure?”

    The Moon has nor had no rivers to deposit sediments, and keep them wet, so its surface, even the regolith fines we call dust, compacts into quite a strong layer even at shallow depths.

    It’s the liquid water that makes the difference.

  • LocalFluff

    I don’t see why it is so fussy with launch pads. What about sea launch? And Pegasus air launch? They’re not on solid ground. And the Apollo ascent didn’t rest on any compacted ground. What does it matter if the pad leans a couple of degrees from launch to launch, the rocket compensates for more than that on its way. As long as a sinkhole won’t suddenly gobble it all up.

  • wayne

    Tom Billing’s–

    Thank you.
    I stand totally corrected as to the spacepad, only peripherally paying attention to the back story on this.
    (my grandfather was an actual civil-engineer but I only play a genius, on the interweb.)

    I do know, a “up to a couple hundred feet down” for cement pillars to support a building, for example, is doable.
    –Depends heavily on cost-benefit trade-offs, and what sort of tolerance’s and stability they require.

    this is a deep sunk-cost for spacex, (excusing my pun)

  • wodun

    Uh, maybe our host could chime in on this. I seem to recall an earlier post that dealt with the use of pilings and foregoing their use, or using as many as they would ideally like, due to cost or something?

  • wayne

    wodun–
    I believe you are correct, this has come up but I’m too lazy to search for the particulars.

  • wodun and Wayne: See the link at this post, which took me one quick search on BtB to find, using the word “Brownsville.”

  • Edward

    LocalFluff asked: “Is that how sky scrapers are build?

    I recently worked at a place where nearby buildings were being prepared to be constructed. They were driving piles into the ground, which was barely above sea level, about 1/2 mile from the water (the continual pounding noise grew tiresome, and one of my colleagues counted the range of number of hits that it took to drive a single pile, my vague recollection was something like a minimum of 180ish and a maximum of 300ish). Until reading Robert’s post (linked above), I had expected that SpaceX would drive piles at the sites of the buildings and the pad.

    Sometimes reaching bedrock may be impractical, as in the area where I worked, but piles can be effective anyway, but a famous exception to their effectiveness is San Francisco’s leaning tower.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Tower_(San_Francisco)

    LocalFluff asked: “If that effort and time is needed for a launch pad, however is fuel supposed to be launch from the Moon without caterpillars to build this kind of infrastructure? How were Apollo launched from there? How are satellites launched at sea from barges and submarines?

    For Apollo’s Saturn V, piles were driven into the swamp before they paved the crawler roadways, and I expect that they did the same for the launch pads. From the Moon, Apollo’s Ascent Module used the Descent Module as its launch pad. It is hard to say just how future projects will handle landing/launch pads for early lunar mine operations, but my first guess is that they will bulldoze the regolith away until they reach bedrock, depending on the depth of the regolith. My second guess is that they will land and launch far enough away from structures that debris kicked up from the thrusters does not reach or damage any structures.

    How they will handle the fuel from the lunar processing facility to the lunar lander that will carry it away to orbit is not yet designed, but something flexible enough to reach the actual landing position, as opposed to the planned landing position, will have to do the job. Just as SpaceX’s returning rockets land within a few feet of the X on the landing pads, there is some tolerance for the actual final location of the landing feet. Maybe a flexible hose, such as at a gas station, or an entire tank that is preloaded with fuel at the processing facility is attached to the lander, using a tractor.

    Submerged submarines and the Sea Launch “barge” (an oil drilling platform that has been repurposed for rocket launches) are fairly stable platforms, but both systems are designed to account for their unique situations.

    LocalFluff asked: “I don’t get this launch pad thing. Sometimes this pad thing is extremely hard and upholds space programs for years (like in Russia today, right?) But sometimes it is as easy as putting a trellis together in your back yard.

    The size, weight, and complexity of the rocket determines a lot about the pad design. If you are Robert Goddard with small experimental rockets then you don’t need much of a pad, but have a garden hose ready just in case of grass fire. If you are launching a manned, cryogenic fueled, multi-staged, 5 million pound Apollo, you need quite a bit of pad, gantry, emergency escape zip lines, infrastructure, assembly facilities, and launch control and mission control facilities. Keep people quite a distance from a fueled Apollo, too; you don’t want another Nedlin type of catastrophe.

    Russia’s recent pad construction difficulties may be due to more than the complexity of construction. The Russians have been finding an abundance of corruption surrounding that project.

    LocalFluff asked: “What does it matter if the pad leans a couple of degrees from launch to launch, the rocket compensates for more than that on its way.

    The farther from vertical that a rocket sits on its pad, the more weight one side supports than the other side, and the greater the chance of structural failure of the rocket. Cracks and damage to the pad, the tower, and support structures due to settling are also a big concern. When your house settles a bit, you may have to plane a door or two (and accept less money when you sell), but a pad needs to remain in excellent condition, otherwise an unexpected problem can result in launch failure and possible loss of payload or life.

    You and I might hop into our cars with the low tire pressure light lit, but a rocket is more like a racing car, operating close to the design limits, and pads are like race track pits, requiring all the equipment to be in top operating condition in order to accomplish the goal. Pad accidents can be expensive, as with SpaceX’s pad 40, last year, or fatal, as happened in Brazil in 2003.

  • wayne

    Edward-
    good stuff.

    Speaking indirectly for Civil Engineering and Land Surveying– both of these Professions exercise a high degree of accuracy on the ground. Combine that with skilled tradesman and you get large structures built true, straight, and level.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Here’s a link to some fairly recent drone-cam footage of the SpaceX Boca Chica site (with Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ as soundtrack). As you can see, SpaceX has, indeed, heaped up and leveled off a very impressive mound of soil and was well into the process of preparing another, smaller site some distance away. This second site seems to have a plastic sheet foundation liner in place that was in the process of being covered with soil as this video was being shot. The same is likely true of the big mound as well. I don’t know whether the second site was going to be built up to the same extent as the first, larger, mound or not as I have found no newer footage which shows this area.

    I also found this superposition photo/drawing showing the nature and extent of the construction SpaceX has planned at Boca Chica. The big mound appears to be the foundation for the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) rather than the pad. The second, smaller area seen being worked on in the video appears to be the propellant and consumables storage area. The pad will be a third area that, in the video, shows no sign of any significant work having yet been done. The cross-hatched areas of the drawing appear to designate roads and parking areas.

    Said video has been on-line for four months, though, and there has certainly been significant progress made over the intervening interval. I found a recent local news station report, showing a large telemetry tracking antenna installed that definitely wasn’t there in the drone footage from January. A second such dish is said to be on the way soon.

    There are, as yet, no hints as to where landing pads are going to be situated to handle returning booster stages, but those must surely be part of the plan.

    This site probably won’t be operational for another 18 months or so, but it seems to be coming along nicely. As with the HIF at LC-39A, the HIF at Boca Chica will probably go up quickly once its point on the critical path is reached. I think the LC-39A HIF only took about 60 days to build.

    Unless SpaceX puts out formal PR material, I suspect tracking of progress at Boca Chica will only be possible for most of us by looking at successive yet-to-come local TV station stories and – perhaps – more amateur drone footage. At some point, I suspect SpaceX will take active measures to avoid the latter. Once one has thousands of gallons of propellants on-site, I don’t see tolerance of 3rd-party drones overhead really being in the picture.

  • LocalFluff

    @Edward, great answers.
    Small launchers have an advantage here. Launch pad costs seem to increase out of proportion with launcher mass. Unless SpaceX breaks that rule too (it is as if they never learned economics, disrespecting old wisdoms!)

    Concerning launching from the Moon, the purpose of a launch pad there seems to be to simply have a clean area to avoid debris being thrown around by the thrusters. Apollo didn’t have any previous structures to care about. But Apollo 11 shot down the flag as they took off. Distance is not a practical cure since in vacuum and 1/6 g debris flies far. I’ve read somewhere that pebbles probably went orbital during Apollo landings. Maybe one will have to wall in the assets to be protected rather than the launch/landing pad, since an emergency landing besides the prepared pad otherwise would damage the Lunar base. This is little better on Mars.

  • BSJ

    Brownsville also gets hit with Hurricanes, and tornadoes.

    Gota build something that can withstand very high winds speeds and strong foundations are a part of that!

  • Edward

    LocalFluff wrote: “Concerning launching from the Moon, the purpose of a launch pad there seems to be to simply have a clean area to avoid debris being thrown around by the thrusters.”

    The early reusable landers (e.g. ULA’s proposed Xeus) are likely to have the advantage of being mostly self contained, like the Apollo Lunar Ascent Module. Refueling, unloading/loading, and repair and maintenance of these early landers are likely to be the most hands on part of their operation on the Moon. Hopefully, landing pads/areas for these landers will be simpler than Earth launch pads.

    LocalFluff,
    You may be right, that any landing sites near structures, and especially solar panels, may require some form of berm or wall to protect from flying debris.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *