NASA has disclosed SpaceX’s plans for an altogether other Starship launch site only a few miles to the north, less than two weeks after CEO Elon Musk stated that SpaceX has resumed construction of a Starship launch site at Kennedy Space Center’s current LC-39A pad.
While NASA was considering creating LC-39C, a third Saturn-class launch pad to go along with 39A and 39B, at the location formerly known as Launch Complex 49 (LC-49), SpaceX now claims it intends to transform the site into a dedicated Starship launch pad.
As of 2017, NASA designated a tract of land as LC-49, which is located approximately a mile (1.6 kilometers) northwest of NASA’s LC-39B Space Launch System (SLS) pad and 3 miles (5 kilometers) northwest of LC-39A, which SpaceX has leased since 2014 and launched from since 2017.
It will take a lot of effort and extensive environmental studies for SpaceX to adapt the location of the proposed LC-49 launch complex in Florida into a launch site that can accommodate rockets with thrust levels two and a half times greater than those of Saturn V’s.
Construction of Starship orbital launch pad at the Cape has begun
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 3, 2021
"In response to an inquiry from SpaceX, NASA is preparing to conduct environmental assessments to develop…Launch Complex 49."
"The 175-acre site…would support the launch and landing of the company’s Starship and Super Heavy launch vehicle."https://t.co/y51Rm1ZNBh
— Thomas Burghardt (@TGMetsFan98) December 16, 2021
As of today, “LC-49” is essentially just a dotted line on a map. The location comprises a variety of natural wetlands and is completely undeveloped, located a few thousand feet south of the affectionately called Mosquito Lagoon Aquatic Preserve and Canaveral Seashore National Park.
While wetter, the area SpaceX plans to build is quite similar to the location where Starbase’s Starship launch facilities are already located in Boca Chica, Texas. The location was vacant coastal mudflats prior to SpaceX’s arrival.
SpaceX trucked in hundreds of tonnes of material, which rested in a mound for three years,’ surcharging’ or compressing the ground underneath it, to transform such a weak and unstable location into an orbital launch site.
Surprisingly, although SpaceX erected a tiny suborbital launch site where it surcharged, it built the site’s first orbital Starship launch pad a little to the east, where no such preparations were taken. That speaks well for the speed with which SpaceX might theoretically construct LC-49 from the ground up, but it will undoubtedly be more difficult.
Because NASA’s proposed LC-49 location is essentially swamp and marshland, SpaceX will be required to build the ground on which any planned Starship launch site would stand. It is probable that soil surcharging may be necessary — and on a far greater scale than SpaceX performed in Boca Chica.
However, considering that SpaceX did not even utilize that surcharged land to build the orbital portion of the pad, it is feasible that SpaceX may be able to employ less time-consuming building techniques in the future. If SpaceX is able to build an orbital launch site identical to Starbase’s, the pad may be ready for launch in 12-18 months.
NASA and SpaceX will have to perform environmental studies along the way, but given the planning work that NASA has previously done over the decades, it is feasible that SpaceX would be able to begin constructing LC-49 well before that process is completed — which might take one or several years.
Sentinel-2 passed over the Space Coast @ 2021-12-16 16:05:23 UTC capturing updated imagery of LC-39A and Roberts Road.
While not much visible has changed, this is mostly preparation work for what's to come. pic.twitter.com/SxiAm5J3kY
— Harry Stranger (@Harry__Stranger) December 17, 2021
NASA’s suggestion that SpaceX is planning to expand a building it rents elsewhere at Kennedy Space Center is also fascinating. SpaceX has been clearing a lot near that hangar, which is roughly the same size as Starbase’s South Texas Starship plant and is now utilized to process and store Falcon rockets, fairings, and upper stages. The clear assumption is that SpaceX plans to construct and launch Starships from various launch sites in Florida.
Splendid! 39A is a rock star launch complex.
Close mirror to Starbase's OLS, with a Tower and Mechzilla, etc? Starship construction at Starbase and ship vehicles to the Cape?
So many questions. 😀
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) December 3, 2021
Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, says that the company has restarted work on a separate Starship launch pad on Pad 39A grounds after putting it on hold last year to focus on South Texas. This is just a few miles away.
In this case, SpaceX decided to get rid of the unfinished launch mount it had built. This made way for the construction of a new and better version of Starbase’s orbital launch site. All together, SpaceX is now building two orbital launch pads for the Starship (one at Starbase and one at 39A), as well as planning to build two or three more (a second at Starbase and at least one or two at LC-49).