SpaceX is building Starship’s East Coast launch site at a breakneck pace

Pad 39A is pictured here in February 2019. The upper right quadrant - from the LOX sphere to the hangar - will become a dedicated Starship and Super Heavy launch facility. (USAF - Hope Geiger, February 2019)

After breaking ground on September 21st, SpaceX and construction contractors are working at a breakneck pace to complete the modifications necessary for the existing Launch Complex 39A pad to support East Coast Starship and Super Heavy launches.

SpaceX is simultaneously preparing two launch sites and two orbital-class Starship prototypes – Mk1 (Boca Chica, Texas) and Mk2 (Cocoa, Florida) – for their inaugural flight tests. Both pads and flight hardware appear to feature unique design choices and clearly have different strategic value, but one thing remains entirely consistent: SpaceX is not wasting time at either site.

Less than five days after SpaceX received its final construction permit and broke ground at Pad 39A, the company and its contractors have made quick work of clear the ground. Major earthmoving is well underway, concrete deliveries have already begun, and piles are being driven in a bid to quickly secure the proposed Starship launch mount’s foundation.

Per descriptions and drawings included in environmental assessments and water management documents published in August and September, SpaceX – already leasing and operating out of Pad 39A – intends to modify the NASA-owned Kennedy Space Center (KSC) facilities. Once complete, Pad 39A will be able to simultaneously support both Falcon 9/Heavy and Starship/Super Heavy launches. Per communications archived as part of St. Johns River Water Management District (SJR) permitting, SpaceX also needed NASA approval to attain the stormwater management permits needed to begin its Pad 39A modifications.

The fact that SpaceX has already broken ground guarantees that NASA and KSC have already given SpaceX full permission to do so, meaning that the path to complete Pad 39A’s Starship launch accommodations is nearly wide open. The only thing SpaceX still needs – assuming the company hasn’t already received approval – is one last major permit in the form of a positive National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental assessment (EA), the final draft of which was published on August 7th. SpaceX can technically continue construction but it will need to secure NEPA approval before it can begin any sort of Starship operations at the new facilities.

Meanwhile, although it’s pretty clear that a large portion of SpaceX’s Cocoa, FL Starship crew has been diverted to help with Mk1 in Texas, a skeleton crew continues to do what they can to prepare Starship Mk2 for its next major assembly milestones. Most notably, the prototype’s upper (top) tank dome was rolled out of the facility’s assembly building, a strong indicator that it’s nearly ready for installation atop Starship Mk2’s tank section. This will ‘cap off’ Starship Mk2, a milestone its sister ship reached on September 14th. As such, Mk2 is likely two or so weeks behind Mk1 after suffering delays at the hand of Hurricane Dorian and after CEO Elon Musk likely decided to prioritize Starship Mk1’s pre-presentation preparations.

Most importantly, a few local observers have noted and continued to document the process SpaceX will have to undertake to transport Starship Mk2 from Cocoa to Cape Canaveral – specifically Pad 39A. Several people realized that a nearby railroad bridge’s imminent construction could shortly block the path SpaceX was hoping to use to get Starship to the Indian River, where a barge could carry it the rest of the way to KSC. SpaceX likely has backup routes as options, but they would very likely require far more time and effort.

Time will tell if SpaceX can prepare Starship Mk2 in time to take its original transport route. By all appearances, if the prototype’s transport ends up being delayed, Pad 39A’s newly minted Starship launch facilities will likely be ready and waiting once the rocket arrives.

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"Eric Ralph : @twitter.com/13ericralph31 I write about space, among other things.."
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