SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy rocket needs a launch pad and work is already starting

According to SpaceX job posts published early this month, the company has already begun the process of looking for the engineer or engineers that will be responsible for preparing both Starship/Super Heavy and its prospective pad facilities for the rocket’s inaugural launches.

Per one of those posts, Starship/Super Heavy’s “initial launch capability” will be achieved at Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A (also known as Pad 39A), a facility SpaceX has leased since 2014 and launched from since 2017. Originally constructed in the 1960s to support Saturn V, the largest operational US rocket ever built, Pad 39A spent another three decades supporting dozens of Shuttle launches until the latter was also retired, after which SpaceX took over the historic facility. Although SpaceX has specifically discussed plans to ultimately turn its South Texas outpost into a full-fledged orbital launch site, that will be an extremely slow and expensive endeavor and Pad 39A makes sense for several reasons.

Building rocket launch facilities is hard

Even though SpaceX has still tended to aggressively outperform its competitors and peers, the process of building a new launch complex from scratch is extremely challenging. For example, after SpaceX suffered a catastrophic failure of Falcon 9 at Pad 40 (LC-40) in September 2016, the company had to conduct extensive refurbishment and even tacked on some pre-planned upgrades. Still, a large portion of the pad remained intact, including the flame trench (with minor damage), hangar facilities, and more.

Ultimately, it took SpaceX more than 10 months and $50M to repair, rebuild, and upgrade LC-40. The biggest single ticket item was likely the new transporter/erector and its associated launch mount and water deluge system, followed by new plumbing and communications infrastructure throughout the pad. By far the most time-consuming and expensive process, however, is laying a foundation for the launch pad itself, most of which SpaceX was able to skip at Pad 40 after some relatively minor repairs and modifications.

Blue Origin’s LC-36 launch complex is pictured here in March 2018. (Blue Origin)

Although Blue Origin is as tightlipped as space startups come, owner Jeff Bezos has indicated that the companies large-scale LC-36 pad – built from a clean slate – was part of an overall investment of “more than $1 billion”. That is split between LC-36, a new factory, and a more general-use campus in and around Cape Canaveral, Florida. Building a factory is even more expensive than launch facilities, so the overall cost of building LC-36 from scratch is likely somewhere between $150M and $300M, although it could be even more expensive.

LC-36 is being built for New Glenn, a rocket that will produce roughly 75% as much thrust as Falcon Heavy and ~25% as much thrust as Starship’s Super Heavy booster at liftoff. This is all to make a simple point: if SpaceX means to do so, building a new Super Heavy-class launch pad at Boca Chica is going to take a bare minimum of a year and $100M+ (assuming Blue Origin has been somewhat inefficient, as usual). SpaceX’s current setup is unambiguously dedicated to far lower-thrust Starhopper (and maybe Starship) test flights, whereas an orbital launch complex capable of surviving Super Heavy liftoffs would be at least 5X larger and involve extensive foundation-laying and far more concrete.

SpaceX’s massive Launch Complex 39A is pictured here. (USAF – Hope Geiger, February 2019)
Pad 39A alongside an outdated aerial view of SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch facilities. The latter have changed significantly in 2018 and 2019 but have not grown beyond those rough bounds. (Teslarati)
SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starhopper facilities are absolutely dwarfed by all three of its operational launch pads. (Austin Barnard, February 2019)

All things considered, it’s thrilling that SpaceX is already in the process of designing and – soon – constructing the launch complex (or add-on hardware) that will support the first suborbital and orbital launches of Starship and Super Heavy. Per the aforementioned Launch Engineer job post, it seems all but certain that visible work at Pad 39A could begin at any moment, regardless of whether SpaceX has plans to subtly modify the existing 39A facilities or build something entirely new within its borders.

According to SpaceX VP of Commercial Sales Jonathan Hofeller, “the goal is to get orbital as quickly as possible, potentially even this year, with the full stack operational by the end of next year and then customers in early 2021.” In short, Starship and Super Heavy-compatible launch facilities are going to be needed at 39A (and, eventually, Boca Chica) far sooner than later. Even if it’s likely that the vehicle development will suffer delays that could push Starship’s orbital launch debut into 2021 or beyond, launch pad design and construction is challenging and slow but still fairly predictable. and it is certainly better to be early than to be late. In short, the next 12 months are going to be wild.

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SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy rocket needs a launch pad and work is already starting
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