SpaceX's California Starship factory plans detailed ahead of permitting decision

According to documents published by SpaceX, the company could soon build a miniature version of its Boca Chica Starship factory in the Port of Los Angeles. (SPadre)

SpaceX’s California Starship factory plans have been detailed in new documents published by the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners, one of the last big steps before a crucial permitting decision is made later this week.

First reported on February 1st, SpaceX has resurrected plans to build a Starship factory in Los Angeles, just 20 or so miles away from the company’s Hawthorne, California headquarters. SpaceX abandoned its lease of Port of Los Angeles Berth 240 in the spring of 2019, a decision made a handful of months after the company dramatically scrapped plans to build its next-generation rocket out of carbon-fiber composites. Now known as Starship and Super Heavy and radically redesigned to use steel for 99% of its structural elements, SpaceX has been building prototypes of the Starship upper stage for more than 14 months.

That work has been performed almost exclusively at Boca Chica, Texas facilities that have been in an almost continuous period of gradual expansion and upgrades since late-2018. Situated a few miles from the Mexican border on the southernmost tip of Texas’ Gulf Coast, Boca Chica is an exceptional location for orbital launches from the continental United States but is less than optimal when it comes to build (and more importantly) staffing a high-quality rocket factory. Since Starship prototype fabrication and integration was shifted almost entirely to Texas, SpaceX has had to send expert Hawthorne-based employees to Boca Chica for weeks at a time, often hitching a ride on CEO Elon Musk’s private jet. With a dedicated Port of LA Starship factory, life could be made much easier, cheaper, and – ultimately – better for everyone involved.

Berth 240 was previously used as fairing recovery ship Mr. Steven’s berth and briefly considered for a BFR factory. (Pauline Acalin)

While its growth has been undeniably gradual, SpaceX is in the late stages of building an impressive manufacturing base around its Boca Chica launch facilities. As of Tuesday, February 17th, company contractors have effectively completed the shells of two massive ‘sprung structures’ (tents) that are already being used to house certain Starship fabrication, assembly, and integration operations.

Both tents and the VAB are visible in these recent photos.

Nearby, a separate group is in the late stages of constructing the primary structure of a ~50m (160 ft) tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) with an even taller building also in the pipeline, both of which should allow Starship and Super Heavy stacking, welding, and outfitting to be done in a sheltered, partially climate-controlled environment. Additionally, SpaceX has delivered hardware needed to build a dedicated on-site waterjet shop, giving its Boca Chica outpost the ability to precisely fabricate its own metal parts.

According to SpaceX’s updated 2020 Port of Los Angeles regulatory documents, the company has major ambitions for its resurrected California Starship factory. In simple terms, it really does want to build a true Starship factory instead of something smaller or more specialized. Specifically, SpaceX wants Berth 240 to be able to independently form Starship’s steel rings, stack and weld those rings together, outfit integrated barrel sections with all necessary access ports, plumbing, and flight-related hardware, and build any number of other Starship parts (likely fins, legs, noses, etc.).

SpaceX effectively wants to replicate its Boca Chica Starship hub in the Port of Los Angeles. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

This time around, SpaceX would refurbish and reuse five aging structures already present at Berth 240, avoiding the potential hassle, delays, and cost of building an entirely new factory (as was previously the plan). It’s likely that SpaceX would eventually erect similar sprung structures on Berth 240’s empty lot, and it looks like the modified permit applications would even allow the company to build the same factory it previously proposed in addition to the new plans to reuse existing structures.

Although reusing abandoned buildings built a century ago will almost bring its own challenges, SpaceX’s tweaked approach does make it likelier (even if still improbable) that the company will be able to realize its ambitious goal of kicking off Berth 240 Starship production just a month or two from now. While not discussed in the permit, SpaceX’s new plans would presumably also involve shipping fully-completed Starship subsections (meaning just a few stacked steel rings at a time) from California to Texas, where Boca Chica workers would ultimately integrate those segments to form finished ships and boosters that can then be acceptance-tested and launched.

For now, though, SpaceX still has to reacquire its old Berth 240 lease and environmental permits before it can begin repairing existing structures and building out its prospective Port of LA rocket factory. Up next, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission will meet on Thursday, February 20th to hear several permit appeals, SpaceX’s included.

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Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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