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With the federal bureaucracy gleefully sharpening its knives to shut down Boca Chica, SpaceX should quickly shift Starship/Superheavy operations to Florida

Superheavy still going strong, shortly after Max-Q
Superheavy still going strong, shortly after Max-Q

The results of the spectacular test launch last week of SpaceX’s Superheavy/Starship heavy lift rocket was predictable in almost all ways.

First, everyone knew that it was highly unlikely that the launch would do everything intended. This was the first time ever that SpaceX had fired all 33 Raptor-2 engines at the base of Superheavy, at full power. It was the first time ever that this firing took place with Starship stacked on top. It was the first time ever that the entire stack was fueled. It was the first time ever that this rocket — the world’s most powerful (twice as powerful as the Saturn-5 and about three times more powerful than SLS) — had every launched.

The number of unknowns were gigantic, which was exactly why SpaceX needed to do the launch. The company’s engineers needed to find out what they didn’t know about Superheavy in order to refine their engineering so that Superheavy will be more likely for success in its next launch. They also needed to find out what such a launch would do to their preliminary launchpad, in order to refine its engineering as well so that future launches could take place with little or no damage.

Thus, it is not surprising that there were surprises. The most significant was the actual amount of success. Superheavy functioned far better than anyone could have dreamed, retaining flight control through max-q and then flying for almost three minutes before Starship failed to separate and the entire stack lost control and had to be destroyed. Most of its engines worked, though discovering the reasons for the handful that failed will be a prime question in the subsequent investigation.

The second unsurprising thing about this launch is the reaction of the federal bureaucracy, run by Democrats and the Biden administration. It has quickly moved in to squelch any further launches at Boca Chica, likely for a considerable time. The FAA immediately initiated its own investigation while grounding all further launches from Boca Chica. The Fish & Wildlife Service has now begun detailing, almost gleefully, the amount of ground damage the launch caused, including ripping out the concrete base below the rocket and flinging chunks of debris hundreds of feet away as well as depositing a cloud of sand dust on everything up to 6.5 miles from the launchpad.

This quote however is significant, and tells us the real truth:

No debris was found on lands belonging to the refuge itself, but the agency said debris was spread out over 385 acres belonging to SpaceX and Boca Chica State Park. A fire covering 3.5 acres also started south of the pad on state park land, but the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t state what caused the fire or how long it burned.

There was no evidence, though, that the launch and debris it created harmed wildlife. “At this time, no dead birds or wildlife have been found on refuge-owned or managed lands,” the agency said. [emphasis mine]

This lack of harm to wildlife is another event that should have surprised no one, since rockets of all types have been launching from Cape Canaveral for more than half a century with only positive benefits to the wildlife refuge that surrounds it. The launches themselves do no harm to that wildlife, but the launch facility’s need to keep a large area around it undeveloped has created a zone of protection for that wildlife that has allowed it to prosper. The same will be true at Boca Chica, and if Fish & Wildlife was at all interested in the facts it would recognize this reality and stand down.

Instead, it appears that both the FAA and Fish and Wildlife are now teaming up to block any future launches at Boca Chica until SpaceX guarantees that the rocket and its launchpad will work perfectly. But since SpaceX must conduct launches to determine how to build and further refine the design of that rocket and launchpad, it can’t make that guarantee if it is banned from making launches.

We must therefore conclude that these federal agencies are more interested in exerting their power than doing their real job. They are therefore conspiring to shut Starship and Superheavy development entirely, or at a minimum, they are allowing their partisan hatred of Elon Musk and capitalism itself to delay this work as much as possible. As Lord Acton said in 1887, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The irony of this whole situation is that another agency of the federal government, NASA, desperately needs Starship built and operational as soon as possible. It is relying on this spacecraft to safely place its Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Without it the entire Artemis Moon program is stymied.

Musk has said that SpaceX could be ready to do a second launch at Boca Chica in one or two months, and there is no reason to doubt him on this. The company already has additional prototypes waiting in the wings. Based on how quickly it built and then rebuilt that launchpad several times in preparing for this first test launch, it should have no trouble getting it rebuilt and repaired again in that time. Musk also noted that this rebuild will include “a massive water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount,” designed to absorb the power of Superheavy’s engines.

No matter. I personally doubt there will ever be another launch from Boca Chica. There are too many people in the federal government — and in the media — that either hate Elon Musk, hate free enterprise, hate freedom itself, and love regulation and power. They are going to gang up to block further launches there.

It is therefore imperative that SpaceX get its Superheavy/Starship launchpad at Cape Canaveral operational quickly. Install that steel plate there. Design it with the knowledge gained from this one Boca Chica launch.

And launch there as soon as possible. The regulatory situation in Florida is far different than in Boca Chica, since the Cape Canaveral launchsite is so well established. It will be difficult (but not impossible) for these same petty dictators to block SpaceX (though they have already tried). Moreover, SpaceX will have there the enthusiastic cooperation of NASA, the government agency that controls much of what goes on at Cape Canaveral and is also on its side in this war. Moreover, the other government agency that controls Cape Canaveral, the Space Force, has little interest in allowing Fish & Wildlife to grab any control there. It will defend its own prerogatives passionately, and almost certainly in favor of SpaceX.

To put it more bluntly, SpaceX should waste as little energy now in trying to fly from Boca Chica. Don’t pour good money after bad. Better to quickly shift gears to Florida, and therefore waste as little time or capital as possible.

Conscious Choice cover

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  • I am not as pessimistic as you are, Robert. Yes, there are people in both these agencies and others that want Boca Chica shut down. And too, there are environmental groups that want Boca Chica shut down. While these people and groups slowed down the Programmatic Environmental Assessment that was published last year, they did not succeed in stopping SpaceX which was their desire. There may be some bumps in the road, and it may take more than 1 or 2 months before physical and bureaucratic problems are solved, SpaceX will continue to launch from Boca Chica. I think the problematic people in government will be “throttled back” and I haven’t seen any lawsuits from the environmentalists.

  • John

    The same problems, however imagined, will still be present for SpaceX in Florida. The FAA and Fish, Crustaceans, and Wildlife still have the same regulatory power in Florida. While NASA may need the rocket, we can count on high level administrators and decision makers to be loyal to the party over the mission.

    Let’s not forget, Elon Musk is literally a threat to OUR democracy by encouraging and allowing misinformation on Twitter. Elon may soon have a choice. Protect THEIR democracy or “the” science will be unleashed on him, and it’d be a shame if something happens to his rocket.

    Start the environmental study on removing all the sand to prevent some sand from moving to where obviously no sand should ever exist. How can they say there are no dead animals on refuge owned lands? Animals die from old age all the time! One deceased seagull and adios buddy. And we need to devise a method to conduct hearing tests on wildlife- that rocket is LOUD!

  • LTC (Ret.) Ted

    As you know, Heinlein envisioned government and those with contrary interests combining to shut down activities that might stop the gravy train or shatter their rice bowls.

  • Jhon B

    They should head to Mexico. I know they can’t, and I know why, but he should.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I am concerned that KSC is too close to major shipping and air routes, and to very large population centers, to evolve to the multiple launches per day facility that SpaceX will require.

    In addition, SpaceX is THE employer of choice in the Brownsville region, and will likely invigorate the area’s economy, so it will have lots of defenders locally. The Space Coast has already got world class status, and many there will figure “Enough is enough, now that I’m here”!

    Ultimately, SpaceX and/or NASA is going to have to multiply and diversify its locations, and Brownsville is a great way to learn how to do it!

  • pzatchok

    If space X moves to Florida its basically saying that private space launch facilities will never be viable.

    The government will own and operate all of them because they will be the only ones with the power and cash to fight those against private enterprise.

  • jburn

    Wasn’t Musk exploring the use of modified oil drilling platforms (no longer in service) to launch spacecraft? The space craft could be built on land and transported offshore from the Boca Chica site.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Yep, what pzatchok said.

  • Shallow Minded Reader

    Elon forgot 10% for the Big Guy. Elections have consequences. Stolen elections have disastrous consequences.

  • John C

    Isn’t this planet doomed in a couple years because of climate change? How are we going to escape and colonize another planet if they keep nitpicking about environmental issues here? This is suicide I tell you! We need to focus all our energy on escape, we have little time to spare!

  • Doubting Thomas

    Yes – What Ray and pzatchok said. We need more places to launch from.

    I do wish that Musk & SpaceX had not chased the white whale of “Don’t need any exhaust diverter and flame trench.” Don’t think it matters if launch is in Boca Chica or Kennedy, it is undesirable to throw concrete chunks around a small area or pulverized concrete dust around a larger area. Having sinned on the first flight, regulators may not be willing to let SpaceX try the water-cooled steel plate trick at either site. More delay. Elon has to get us to the moon while I’m still around to see it.

  • Jeff Wright

    Texas is more purple than you think. Florida too. He needs to work with MSFC and launch from the overbuilt battleship test stands at Stennis. He is closer to hydrocarbons, waterways and friendlier politicians who will do what he wants…with an occasional SLS type core atop SuperHeavy. My real purpose in past smack talk was to goad him into launching too early so he would have to go elsewhere. I thought my ULA pals bet on the wrong horse with Bezos and kicking my Dynetics bros in the teeth…so I had to act. Also, I have seen air-traffic maps with empty holes allowing a Mobile-Stennis launch. Boca is a spent sow. There-you have found me out.

  • Robert Pratt

    The balance of the U.S. House may very well depend upon the seats in the Rio Grande Valley. Democrats need to keep such so one should figure that into the mix. It makes it much harder for the White House to shut down development at Boca Chica.

  • Gary H

    Elon is facing down the CCP and the US federal government. He must be controlled at all cost. We all hope that he stands up to these tyrants, but this is far from a level playing field. He might just struggle to survive.

  • Steve Richter

    Could SpaceX build a new launch pad further inland from their Boca site? On public lands which is away from the coastal wildlife and far enough about the water table to build the flame trench?

    SpaceX needs multiple orbital launch sites. Have the politicians compete against each other in making their district launch friendly and willing to keep the regulators at bay.

  • Steve Richter: I think we all have been missing the connection between the situation at Boca Chica and this story this same week:

    SpaceX leases second launchpad at Vandenberg

    Though the lease is initially for launching “Falcon rockets”, I would not be surprised if SpaceX looks to get it amended for Starship/Superheavy.

  • Thus, it is not surprising that there were surprises. The most significant was the actual amount of success. Superheavy functioned far better than anyone could have dreamed, retaining flight control through max-q and then flying for almost three minutes before Starship failed to separate and the entire stack lost control and had to be destroyed.

    Ozan Bellik has noted that had separation occurred, even where it would have occurred (many miles short of the planned location), margins were such that Starship could still have fired up its engines and successfully soared into orbit.

  • Gary H

    Steve R
    Is this really about finding a solution, or is it about controlling Musk? What if this last launch originated inland and self destructed over land?

    Eventually, Musk wants multiple launches in rapid succession. Is there even a remote chance that this will be permitted in todays risk adverse politically charged eco crazy environment?

  • pawn

    Crabs in a bucket.

  • GaryMike

    Once off-world, people aren’t going to be so easily controlled.

    Moon base can govern itself according to its own sensibilities,

    Same for Mars bases.

    They’re practicing for denial of Earth-sourced resources blackmail.

  • GaryMike

    Who thinks it will become illegal to materially support off world colonies?

    Why could I possibly imagine such a potential outcome of new world exploration?

  • GaryMike

    Umm, some people actually got out while they weren’t looking.

    Just got a dm, recommending a new medication.

  • pzatchok

    He didn’t build the blast diverter system because it would have delayed tests and launch by almost a year.

    Now he has the launch he wanted and he can remove the launch pad that is damaged(who would stop that?) and start planning for the real launch platform he always wanted.

    He essentially got the rebuilding started far faster than expected.

    Any difficulties he might get from environmental groups will be dealt with by the same research he used last time. Nothing has changed for their excuses. His next launch will not have the same result.
    Any government problems will be dealt with by a few little campaign contributions.

  • Jeff Wright

    There is a cool factor in how the thing erupted off the pad…quite photogenic.

    Musk could sell a coffee table book.

  • Gene Shipp

    Later I’ll have to come back and read all the comments to see if the answer to this question has been posted. Why would Florida be any different under the same federal government?

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “Any difficulties he might get from environmental groups will be dealt with by the same research he used last time. Nothing has changed for their excuses. His next launch will not have the same result.

    In addition, this was close to a worst case scenario, the only thing worse would have been the 8 million pounds of propellants burning on or near the beach, where the wildlife lives. Since they are not finding dead wildlife, it seems that this almost-worst case scenario shows that launch pads and wildlife preserves are more compatible than the environmentalists want to admit. Except for a close-to-the-pad explosion, which has already been considered by the previous environmental impact study, all other launches can only be easier on the wildlife.

    SpaceX most definitely does not want the pad to be damaged by the launches, which means that they will work hard to improve their pad and their methods. This experience has taught the world the worst case scenario for the launch pads of super-heavy class launch vehicles. The Soviet N1 pad explosion demonstrated a worst case scenario for pad explosions.

    Lessons like these help the whole world do better in the future.

    It may take some time before SpaceX can shift the test program to Kennedy. Their sole pad is too close to their 39-A pad, so testing will have to wait until there is another tower built for manned launches on the Canaveral side. They may be building some launch pads a little farther north of the 39-B pad, and those may be far enough way for relatively safe testing.

    An alternative to moving from Boca Chica is to test, in increasing stages, the newest pad protection methods by using the static test fire method at full thrust to demonstrate how well the new protection methods work. This may further delay flight testing, but it is better than having the test site shut down.

    Despite the recent lawsuit filing, I’m fairly sure that SpaceX and NASA can find a way to avert long-term shutdown of their tests. Starship is too important to both organizations.

  • Edward: I have been endlessly frustrated by the unwillingness of people to really come to grips with the threat to freedom by these leftist thugs. They are no longer simply expressing dangerous ideas, they are in power, and using that power with increasing fearlessness.

    SpaceX’s options are increasingly limited. It might have allies in Texas and Congress and in the bureaucracy, but those allies have limited power, and their power keeps getting more and more constrained. Doing a series of static fire tests might help, but since the bad guys here are not motivated by rational results, I don’t think it will matter much.

    As long as Joe Biden is president, the federal bureaucracy will be free to do its will. And I don’t see any way to stop it if it wishes to stall SpaceX.

  • Note too that this bureaucracy has successfully stalled SpaceX already for the past two years. Before Biden, the company was doing frequent flight tests. Since, almost none. Expect that bureaucracy to take its sweet time approving every single piece of paper it demands from SpaceX.

  • Edward

    Robert Zimmerman
    You wrote; “Edward: I have been endlessly frustrated by the unwillingness of people to really come to grips with the threat to freedom by these leftist thugs. They are no longer simply expressing dangerous ideas, they are in power, and using that power with increasing fearlessness.

    You are correct about the loss of freedom. My suggestions are really best-case possibilities.

    The people are not so much unwilling to come to grips with the loss of freedom — I think it has already happened, not just a threat –but are willing to abrogate their freedom to the government for perceived safety. Benjamin Franklin was right.

    It is not just the Democrats and leftists who give up these rights. The Republican voters continue to vote in people who do not take back and give back our freedoms. The reason the left is increasingly fearless about taking our freedoms is that even the Republicans sometimes vote in favor of taking them away.

    At this point, the government has successfully taken sides in politics, and the Republican Party has done nothing about it. This move to the left by the Republican Party, even the voters, is why I am no longer a Republican and won’t vote Republican. They sometimes talk up a storm, but nothing is done — it is as though they are appeasing their voters in order to continue getting votes, and I am no longer falling for it. These empty promises are what the Democrats have done for many decades, and it worked for them, too. It is probably where the Republican politicians got the idea.

    Meanwhile, there is no political party or superhero who is coming to rescue us from this tyranny. If it is to be done, we are going to have to do it ourselves. The how of it is a mystery.

    We can only hope that SpaceX can figure out a way to get around the tyranny and get us another chance on another planet. The importance of a multi planetary species, and maybe this time we will learn the lesson of the complacent Americans of the early twenty-first century.

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