SpaceX BFR Test Site Back on Track

BFR Flight Tests to begin in 2019.

Just this week, SpaceX confirmed on social media that two propellant tanks delivered to their test site in Boca Chica, Texas, were indeed for the planned BFR project, and that progress of the test site was going well after various woes have delayed construction beyond its original planned schedule.

“The ongoing construction of our launch pad in South Texas is proceeding well. SpaceX has now received the final major ground system tank needed to support initial test flights of the Big Falcon Spaceship.” – Sean Pitt, SpaceX

When complete, the South Texas site will be the first fully commercial launch site owned by SpaceX, and with be the fourth site operated by the company in total, with the other three sites being leased from various aerospace bodies.

Figure 1: Rendering of SpaceX's BFR site, coming soon in 2019. (Image Credit: SpaceX.)

Figure 1: Rendering of SpaceX’s BFR site, coming soon in 2019. (Image Credit: SpaceX.)

SpaceX began acquiring land in Texas between 2012 and 2014 with the intention of building a fully commercial launch site dedicated to Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy satellite launches. Those plans were changed later on in early 2018 when Elon Musk announced that all operations at the future Texas site would be dedicated to the BFR Martian transport vehicle. These operations include research, test, development and, ultimately, launch from the site.

Given that the first humans to land on Mars may one day launch from this site, this facility could be one of future historical importance.

“It could very well be that the first person that departs for another planet could depart from this location.” – Elon Musk

So, in anticipation of that being the case, let’s take a look at what facilities are available to those planning to fly direct from Texas to Mars. Or for anyone planning to visit the site to watch a launch.

The Site

The 100+ acre site itself is located on the Texas coastline, in the middle of an isolated wilderness 20 miles northeast of Brownsville, TX.

The isolated area is favorable for a number of reasons, including reduced noise pollution, increased safety, and accessibility to the local aerospace network and workforce.

Being situated on the East Coast means that the company can benefit from Easterly launches over the ocean, enjoying the free-ride gained from launching in the direction of Earth’s rotation without having to worry about inhabitants below. Except for Cuba. Cuba would normally fall in the way of the flight path but SpaceX plans to steer the rocket around Cuba in a “dogleg maneuver” anyway, so no problem there.

This trivial fact is also why the south Texas launch site is referred to colloquially as “Dogleg Park.”

Figure 2: Satellite view and close-up of the launch site. (Image Credit: Bing Maps.)

Figure 2: Satellite view and close-up of the launch site. (Image Credit: Bing Maps.)

These environmental perks were no doubt also sweetened by some additional legislative incentives provided by the state of Texas in lieu of SpaceX bringing business into the area.

Originally scheduled to open in 2016, the construction was delayed due to errors in estimating the bedrock and water level depth, resulting in the site being too deep and too wet. The next two years were spent shipping in fresh soil to stabilize the area before construction could commence. The explosion of a Falcon 9 resulting in the destruction of the SpaceX pad at Cape Canaveral SLC-40 in June 2015 was also an unwelcome drain on construction resources, adding further delay.

The delivery of this final propellant tank marks the final stages of construction, and the site is expected to open for operations in 2019.


An environmental impact assessment from SpaceX to the FAA from 2013 shows that the site will have nitrogen, helium, RP-1 and liquid oxygen storage tanks (the last one being delivered to site this week), a regional office, a hangar, storage, and workshop facilities.

Naturally, there will be one launch pad and flame duct for exiting the planet.

In addition to all of these new facilities, SpaceX managed to obtain some pre-loved items from NASA.

These include two 39m S-band tracking station antennas obtained from a spaceflight tracking center at Kennedy Space Center. These are shuttle-era antennas and will be used for SpaceX manned operations.

Figure 3: Ground station at SpaceX's commercial launch site. (Image Credit: Miguel Roberts /Associated Press.)

Figure 3: Ground station at SpaceX’s commercial launch site. (Image Credit: Miguel Roberts /Associated Press.)

The facilities will draw power from the national electric grid, but there will also be a 6.5-acre solar power station capable of generating 600kW of power which can be used as a backup for operations.

The solar panels will be conveniently provided by Musk’s other venture, SolarCity. No doubt they’ll be using a few of those Tesla batteries too.


So what are those BFR test flights going to consist of exactly? What will the residents of Boca Chica be treated to above their skies?

As the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) is aiming for full reusability, SpaceX will need to know that their vertical landing technology (made famous on the prototype Grasshopper and later Falcon 9) is scalable and manageable for use on the much larger BFR.

SpaceX will perform a similar test campaign to the one they used on Grasshopper. The BFR first-stage will take off and land vertically, over increasingly larger and more complicated hops as the campaign matures.

Additionally, SpaceX wishes to test higher velocity and higher altitude flights, in order to test the thermal protection systems. Spacecraft returning to Earth from Mars will need extra protection given the higher velocities achieved on the return journey.

These tests could begin as early as 2019, with actual full flight tests of the complete vehicle beginning (optimistically) as early as 2020.

Figure 4:

Figure 4: “Trojan Propellant Tank… Courtesy of ULA? Sure! Bring it on in!” (Image Credit: @bocachicagal/Twitter.)


Spaceports aren’t cheap. This one has cost about $100 million of SpaceX’s own money, plus an extra $15 million in incentives from the state.

The renewed activity at the construction site will be welcome news for SpaceX who, a couple of weeks ago, were snubbed by the Air Force contract bidding selection process. Industry insiders suggested that the Air Force may have all that it needs from SpaceX for the moment, and doesn’t feel the need to pump any more cash in.

Others think that maybe SpaceX are at the point where they are commercially viable enough to sustain their own research.

“SpaceX does not need development money,” said Charles Miller, a former NASA adviser and president of the NextGen Space consultancy.

This may indeed be the case. SpaceX has stated that BFR development activities—such as those taking place at the Texas site—will be funded by the funds generated from Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy launches, as well as other SpaceX operations going forward.

One thing is for sure: we can’t wait to see the first footage of BFR being launched from their new site, and hopefully landing intact somewhere close by. Roll on, 2019.