Taking the Long View : A Commerical SpaceX Launch Facility

A Lot on the LineCredit : State of Texas

A Lot on the Line
Credit : State of Texas

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is in Austin, Texas today, where he will be testifying before an appropriations committee of the Texas House of Representatives regarding his proposed plan to build a commercial launch facility for Falcon rockets in Cameron County, near Brownsville and only a few miles from the Mexican border.   Among the four contenders for the site;  Florida, Texas, Georgia and Puerto Rico, the Lone Star state is considered to be in the lead, in part because NASA has refused to transfer to development agency Space Florida, land north of the Kennedy Space Center near the now abandoned town of Shiloh. Recent comments from Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos that his company would also be interested in the Shiloh site as well do not appeared to have altered the circumstances.  Texas though, is moving ahead with sense of purpose, as evidenced by a proposal being introduced this week which would permit the state to close adjacent sections of Boca Chica beach during launch activities, excluding the key summer holiday weekends.

One item which has not received much attention where the new spaceport is concerned though, is the possible role to be played by future   launch vehicles beyond the current Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

The Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are composed of 12′ wide body segments which SpaceX regularly hauls across the country on conventional tractor trailers, an almost absurdly cost effective way to transport the rocket, and one that stands in stark contrast to the United Launch Alliance Delta Mariner ship which moves Delta IV and Atlas v body segments from its factory in Decatur Alabama to Cape Canaveral or much worse, Vandenberg. California.

Elon Musk has made no secret of the fact however, that he would very much like to build a significantly larger launch vehicle, one which presumably could not be moved by either interstate or rail.  Leaving aside impractical air transport, NASA still operates one Super Guppy, and SpaceX’s headquarters and manufacturing facility is immediately adjacent to Jack Northrop Field,  (Hawthorne Municipal Airport), but the lone runway is not built to accommodate heavy aircraft, the remaining options are to follow the lead of NASA and ULA and build the primary stage structure adjacent to water, allowing for barge transport, or to simply build it within short haul distance of the launch pad itself. Although purely speculative,  it is worth considering that if the latter solution is chosen, and SpaceX is famously fond of practical choices, then it seems quite possible that there is more on the line than just a launch facility.  Wherever SpaceX ultimately decides to locate a new commercial spaceport, a manufacturing facility could follow.

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9 Comments on "Taking the Long View : A Commerical SpaceX Launch Facility"

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  1. Coastal Ron says:

    Yep, I think you have it right, that SpaceX is looking for a place that they can call home for current and future launchers, and possible some manufacturing.

  2. Once upon a time, 747 fuselages (6.5 meter diameter) were built at SpaceX’s Hawthorne plant in 28 sections apiece and shipped via rail to Seattle using the tracks south of the factory.


    You would still need final assembly somewhere.

  3. Stellvia says:

    Large rocket stages could be transported as external loads on next-generation dirigibles, such as the Hybrid Air Vehicles Airlander: http://hybridairvehicles.com/civilheavylift.aspx

  4. christopher wilkinson says:

    There’s another launch vehicle in development by SpaceX you forgot to mention, and I think it may well be the dark horse in the booster matrix: Grasshopper. SpaceX could launch from Texas and land the booster in Florida or Peurto Rico, not on the ocean as proposed by Blue Origin.

  5. Zed_Noir says:

    Don’t see why a future mega rocket assembly plant and/or launch site will located in TX if the SpaceX commercial launch facility at Brownsville becomes real.

    There is the problem of relocation of the SpaceX workforce to South TX from South CA.

    Think it would easier to build the mega rocket assembly facility at someplace like the defunct NAS Alameda and shipped it to a launch site at Hawaii. by boat

    The future SpaceX mega rocket (AKA Falcon XX) will need new assembly facility, launch site and logistic infrastructure regardless. As currently the US logistics infrastructure can only support something up to about the 5m diameter range.

    • Coastal Ron says:

      It looks like Musk stated publicly that Falcon 9 production would stay in their current California manufacturing facility, but that a future larger rocket would be built next to the site where it will launch from.

      The challenge for space transportation systems larger than 5m in diameter is not only the rocket body, but the payload too. However the payload could be manufactured elsewhere, and shipped to the seaside launch facility by boat. If the payload is fuel, then the same company making the rocket could use the same tooling to make the fuel tank and avoid the whole logistics problem.

      At this point, the biggest question I would have for Elon Musk is “What” does he see is the payload that is driving the need for larger mass payloads, and why can’t it be broken down into 53mt chunks that fit on Falcon Heavy? I don’t think he’ll say yet, but I would love to see what his thoughts are.

      • Zed_Noir says:

        A future larger rocket assembly plant could be set up on the West coast and rocket components can be shipped directly to a Hawaii launch site. NAS Alameda used to service aircraft carriers. So loading a Ro-Ro transport ship shouldn’t be a problem. As a bonus, Ro-Ro transport ships can support oceanic recovery operations if required.

        If the future larger rockets becomes real. Then a new payload processing plant will build near the rocket assembly plant. The payloads will be logistically handle like rocket components.

        Maybe Musk will only do 53mt chunks to LEO with the larger but fully reusable rocket initially.

      • Coastal Ron says:

        Zed_Noir, Musk is not considering an launch sites in the Hawaiian islands. Plus, Ro-Ro ships are not designed to load and unload cargo that is long and large in diameter.

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