SpaceX scrubs orbital velocity test of Starship, but why was it launching from Texas anyway?

by | Apr 17, 2023

  • SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas “Starbase” facility focuses on Starship and Super Heavy development and testing, offering increased flexibility and privacy.
  • Cape Canaveral and Boca Chica serve distinct roles within SpaceX’s strategy.
  • Cape Canaveral provides more advantageous launch windows, a robust infrastructure, more aerospace partners, and boasts a skilled workforce.
  • Boca Chica has extremely limited launch windows and limited infrastructure, but its remote location offers SpaceX more privacy for development and testing.
  • Both launch sites are crucial for SpaceX’s ambitious space exploration goals.

SpaceX’s highly anticipated launch of the Starship rocket, slated to be the most powerful ever built, was postponed on Monday after engineers ran out of time for the planned launch window after a delay caused by a frozen pressure valve on the colossal Super Heavy booster. SpaceX said that it had two additional launch windows Tuesday and Wednesday, but because so much propellant had already been loaded into the rocket, the company said getting the rocket ready to fly again that soon would be challenging.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has long touted Starship as the cornerstone of SpaceX’s ultimate goal to land humans on Mars. The rocket’s inaugural flight, once rescheduled, will orbit nearly the entire Earth before splashing down off the coast of Hawaii. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted SpaceX a license for an uncrewed flight test on Friday.

While the Starship project has garnered attention, the launch was particularly notable because it wasn’t taking place at Cape Canaveral, but instead at SpaceX’s “Starbase” facility in Boca Chica, Texas, just three miles north of the Mexico border, along the eastern Gulf coast. But before anyone thinks that Texas is about to supersede Florida as America’s launch pad, think again.

Experts suggest that the two sites have distinct advantages and limitations, making it unlikely that Boca Chica could ever replace Cape Canaveral.

The most significant advantage offered by Boca Chica is that it’s two degrees of latitude further south than Canaveral. That gives rockets launching from Boca Chica a slight velocity advantage because locations closer to the equator are traveling faster along earth’s rotational axis than locations further north. When it comes to rocket fuel and launch equations, even small advantages can make a big difference. And when businesses are paying $5,000 to $10,000 per pound to get their satellites and experiments into orbit, those small advantages add up – especially over time.

The problem for Boca Chica is that Florida and other US states actually sit in the launch path to the north and east, while the Yucatan Peninsula, Cuba, the Bahamas and other islands sit in the path to the southeast. In fact, there are only two narrow pathways into space from Boca Chica that don’t cross over populated areas in the critical early phases of a space launch. Contrast that with Cape Canaveral’s prime location on Florida’s eastern seaboard, with clear flying over the wide open Atlantic Ocean for a wide range of orbital inclinations or pathways. A graphic included in a 2014 Embry-Riddle University study illustrates the challenges for Boca Chica:

But that’s not the only advantage that Florida has over Texas. There’s also the well-established infrastructure surrounding NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that provide a robust support network for space industry operations – not just for SpaceX. On top of that, the area boasts a skilled workforce with decades of experience in space launches.

In contrast, Boca Chica faces a number of limitations. Its location in the extreme southern tip of Texas is far from major logistical hubs and critical infrastructure. Combined with its significantly constrained launch window, SpaceX’s private Boca Chica “Starbase” facility will remain somewhat limited in its usefulness. The remote location gives SpaceX more flexibility and privacy during testing, allowing the company to iterate and develop technology quickly, but it’ll likely never be able to compete head-to-head with Canaveral.

Both Cape Canaveral and Boca Chica serve distinct purposes within SpaceX’s broader strategy. Cape Canaveral will likely remain a critical launch site for a variety of missions, while Boca Chica’s role will focus on the development and testing of cutting-edge spacecraft like Starship. As SpaceX continues to expand its operations, both sites will play crucial roles in fulfilling the company’s ambitious goals in space exploration.


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