SpaceX Mars rocket factory in LA go for launch after cresting last big hurdle

After cresting the last major hurdle, SpaceX could begin building Starship hardware at the Port of Los Angeles just a few weeks or months from now. (SpaceX)

SpaceX’s revived plan for a California-based Mars rocket factory has officially been approved by the Los Angeles City Council, the last major hurdle standing in the way of the prospective port-based Starship production facilities.

First announced in March 2018 and abandoned for about a year beginning in March 2019, SpaceX has refreshed plans to build giant rocket parts in a California port, simplifying aspects of the original proposal and relying heavily on the fact that steel is far easier to handle than carbon fiber. Now, the company wants to refurbish and repurpose a number of old abandoned buildings already present at Port of LA Berth 240, effectively replicating a somewhat smaller version of the Starship production facilities SpaceX is in the middle of building in South Texas.

With Los Angeles Harbor Commission and City Council approvals both safely in hand, SpaceX’s Port of LA Starship is now officially a question of “when”, not “if”. When the concept first popped back into the public discourse late last month, it came alongside a report from CNBC reporter Michael Sheetz that SpaceX wanted to start building Starship parts as few as 90 days after it reapproached Port officials.

That certainly remains a massive challenge but it’s increasingly likely that the company will actually be able to start work on a few limited Starship parts within the next month or two. Thanks to the simplicity of the stainless steel SpaceX redesigned Starship to use, the equipment needed to form Starship rings and noses, weld those rings and nose sections together, and outfit that hardware with various rocket-related components is surprisingly robust.

On November 20th, Starship Mk1 suffered a major structural failure during cryogenic proof testing. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Starship Mk1, for example, was fabricated and assembled almost entirely out in the coastal Texas elements over a nine-month period and largely relied on segments of steel sheet metal that was then manually joined and welded together with cranes and workers on mobile lifts. Transported to the launch pad for testing just yesterday (Feb 25), SpaceX has improved the methods used to build Starship SN01 and it undoubtedly shows, offering far superior build quality despite being fabricated and assembled almost nine times faster than Mk1.

Assuming that SpaceX has already ordered similar production equipment, all that’s (optimally) needed to get an equivalent Starship section factory up and running in the Port of LA is healthy cohort of welders and operators, reliable access to electricity and utilities, and a few covered roofs and enclosed structures. Compared to Boca Chica, Texas, the Port of Los Angeles might as well be smack dab in the middle of an oasis.

According to documents published by SpaceX, the company wants to build Starship subsections in the Port of Los Angeles, ultimately shipping those complete tanks, domes, and engine sections to Texas (or Florida). (SPadre)

The biggest hurdles remaining involve navigating the regulatory apparatuses designed to protect historic buildings like those SpaceX plans to refurbish at Berth 240. A number of other miscellaneous specifics will also need to be hammered out with contractors and legal officials from the city, port, and other stakeholders, but ultimately, these last few challenges are more a matter of time than a serious threat. Stay tuned for updates as we wait (again) for SpaceX to break ground on its Berth 240 rocket factory.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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