The Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to approve a permit that allows SpaceX to build and operate a facility at the Port of L.A. to develop its BFR rocket and spaceship system.
The formal approval came days after L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that SpaceX would build its massive, next-generation rocket and spacecraft at the 19-acre site at the former Southwest Marine Shipyard at Berth 240.
Bruce McHugh, director of construction and real estate at SpaceX, estimated that production and fabrication of the rocket would begin in about two or three years.
When the spaceship is stacked atop the rocket, the two pieces combined are expected to measure more than 340 feet. McHugh told the commissioners at the meeting that the BFR rocket would be made of composite materials and would measure about 35 feet in diameter.
The rocket and spaceship will be so large that they will have to be transported by barge, through the Panama Canal, to Cape Canaveral in Florida for launch, McHugh said.
Chief Executive Elon Musk has said BFR will eventually replace SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket — which has a diameter of 12 feet — and its recently debuted Falcon Heavy. BFR is key to SpaceX's plans to colonize Mars, and the company has said the system could also be used for missions to the moon.
McHugh said SpaceX has 40 employees working on design and production considerations for BFR.
The initial 10-year lease at the port will have two additional 10-year extension options. SpaceX's initial rent will be $1.38 million a year, with annual adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index. Under the terms of the agreement, Hawthorne-based SpaceX can offset a total of $44.1 million in rent by making improvements to the Terminal Island site in its first 20 years of tenancy.
SpaceX first approached the port in 2015 and was looking for land to build rockets so large that they could not be moved by truck to the launch pad, Michael DiBernardo, deputy executive director of marketing and consumer relations at the Port of L.A., said during Thursday's meeting. At the time, the company was also looking at potential sites in Texas and Louisiana, he said.
The company — whose full name is Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — is planning site construction in two phases. During the first phase, SpaceX will build a 80,000-square-foot building with a 80-foot ceiling and no columns inside — essentially a "big hangar," McHugh of SpaceX said during the meeting.
In the second phase of construction, that building will be expanded to 200,000 square feet. Construction "will be a union project," McHugh said.
The Terminal Island site has not been occupied since 2005. The location was first developed for shipbuilding in 1918 and was acquired by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp. Shortly after, the shipyard produced about 40 Navy destroyers and employed 6,000 people during the heyday of production during World War II, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy.
1 p.m.: This article was updated with the number of SpaceX employees working on BFR.
11:25 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the L.A. Board of Harbor Commissioners meeting and history of the site.