Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, said crews have started construction on Florida’s first Starship orbital launch pad inside the gates of historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
“Construction of the spacecraft’s orbital launch pad in Cape Town has started,” Musk tweeted on Friday.
The Starship launch site will be located just southeast of the launch mount location for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. SpaceX began construction of a suborbital launch pad for Starship test flights on Platform 39A in 2019, but halted work there to focus on developing Starship’s infrastructure in the Starbase facility in South Texas.
The Starbase site, located on the Texas Gulf Coast east of Brownsville, is home to SpaceX’s Starship factory and has hosted atmospheric test flights of Starship prototypes. SpaceX plans to launch the first Starship orbital test mission next year on the first flight to combine the vehicle’s massive Super Heavy booster with the Starship upper stage.
The fully reusable combined vehicle, also known as the Starship, will be able to lift more than 100 tonnes of cargo into low earth orbit. Powered by more than 30 Raptor engines, the rocket will be nearly 120 meters tall and generate more thrust than NASA’s Saturn 5 moon rocket from the Apollo program, which also left Earth from pad 39A.
“39A is holy ground for spaceflight – no place better than a ship launch pad!” Musk tweeted.
SpaceX’s first orbital launch pad is nearing completion at the Starbase site in South Texas. Musk said the Kennedy Space Center orbital launch pad “will have similar, but improved, ground and tower systems to Starbase.”
SpaceX is also equipping two decommissioned offshore oil drilling rigs to serve as sea launch and landing bases for Starship missions.
Musk did not provide a timeline for when the Starship launch facility might be ready at the Kennedy Space Center, or where SpaceX will build the rockets to be launched from Florida. SpaceX has rapidly expanded its Starship production infrastructure in South Texas in recent years, and the company originally planned to build prototypes of Starship at a site in Cocoa near the Kennedy Space Center as well.
Work on the Cocoa development site ceased when SpaceX decided to focus on the development of Starship in Texas. At around the same time, SpaceX halted construction of a suborbital launch pad on pad 39A.
Over the past few weeks, crews have dismantled the suborbital launch pad from Ramp 39A, freeing the area for more extensive construction of the orbital launch pad. Construction is expected to take place in parallel with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch operations on pad 39A.
The oceanfront launch complex, which SpaceX leased from NASA in 2014, is the only operational US launch pad for astronaut missions in orbit. It is also the only launch pad currently equipped to launch SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, created by combining three Falcon 9 rocket cores to increase heavier payloads in space.
The US military and NASA are relying on the Falcon Heavy to launch national security payloads and interplanetary science probes.
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration said it plans to complete an environmental assessment of SpaceX’s operations at the Starbase site, located near Boca Chica Beach, just north of the US-Mexico border. The review is a prerequisite for the FAA to issue a commercial launch license for the Starship’s first orbital test flight.
The FAA released a draft environmental report in September after consulting with several federal and state agencies, then held two hearings in October to seek public comment.
The draft report marks a reassessment of the original FAA environmental impact statement before SpaceX began construction of the Boca Chica site in 2014. At that time, SpaceX planned to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from the South Texas, but the scope of the project has since changed to focus on the development of the larger Starship and Super Heavy.
Assuming the FAA concludes that Starship’s operations will not have a significant environmental impact, or that the effects can be mitigated, regulators will give the green light for the orbital test flight. Otherwise, the FAA will start working on a new environmental impact statement, which would likely take months, if not years.
The Starship architecture consists of a Super Heavy booster and the Starship vehicle, which serves first as an upper stage during a launch into Earth orbit, then as a space transporter, and finally as a return vehicle from Earth for the payloads and people.
SpaceX ultimately aims to develop a space refueling capability to extend Starship’s heavy cargo transport range in the solar system.
NASA is the first major customer for SpaceX’s Starship program. The space agency announced in April a $ 2.9 billion contract for SpaceX to develop a human-rated lunar lander derived from the spacecraft for Artemis lunar missions.
Blue Origin, a rival space company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, also bid on the lunar lander contract. Blue Origin sued NASA to protest the SpaceX award, but a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit last month.
As part of the architecture of NASA’s Artemis program, astronauts will leave Earth on top of the agency’s government-owned space launch system heavy rocket, a powerful launcher almost as large as SpaceX’s spacecraft. .
Astronauts will travel to the moon inside an Orion crew capsule, then encounter the human-rated Starship lander orbiting the moon. The crew members will be transferred to the spacecraft for a descent to the lunar surface, then re-ascend the rocket into space to reconnect with the Orion spacecraft to return to Earth.
The Starship launch complex at pad 39A could be used in the Artemis moon campaign. Bringing the Starship lander to the moon will require several orbital refueling missions using a refueling variant of the Starship vehicle.
The tankers will dock with the moon-bound spacecraft to transfer methane and liquid oxygen for the Raptor engines of the lunar lander.
The rapid fire launch campaign for an Artemis lunar landing mission will likely require SpaceX to use multiple launch pads, and Ramp 39A could be in the mix. SpaceX is also considering other locations for a second spacecraft launch pad on Florida’s Space Coast.
NASA’s SLS moon rocket will be launched from pad 39B, another Apollo-era launch facility located less than 2.7 kilometers north of pad 39A.
Send an email to the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.