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SpaceX wants to build its Mars Starship at Port of L.A. — again

SpaceX Starship prototype
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk debuts a prototype of SpaceX’s Starship Mars spaceship near Boca Chica Beach in Texas in September 2019. SpaceX is poised to do more Starship work at the Port of Los Angeles.
(SpaceX)

SpaceX created excitement in 2018 when it said it would build its Mars spaceship and rocket at the Port of Los Angeles, striking a deal to lease a swath of Terminal Island for the purpose.

Early last year, it changed its mind and moved the work to Texas.

Now it wants back in — and officials are poised to grant its wish.

The L.A. Board of Harbor Commissioners voted Thursday to approve a new permit for Elon Musk-led SpaceX to lease that same piece of land and establish and re-purpose facilities there to make aerospace products. The prime candidate: SpaceX’s Mars system, known as Starship.

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The deal still needs approval from the L.A. City Council, which is scheduled to take up the matter next week.

“I’m really excited to see what SpaceX will be able to bring for the future of not only space exploration and technology in Los Angeles, but also to the Port of Los Angeles,” Board of Harbor Commissioners President Jaime Lee said minutes before Thursday’s vote.

The Starship project’s return to the Port of L.A. began last month, when SpaceX contacted the Harbor Department and City Councilman Joe Buscaino. The Hawthorne-based company had been building Starship prototypes at its facility near Boca Chica Village in Texas, but it needed additional manufacturing capacity, SpaceX told Buscaino’s office.

SpaceX wants a spot by the water because the spacecraft and parts it plans to manufacture will be too large to transport by road and must be taken to the eventual launch site — which could be in Texas or Florida — by barge or ship.

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The company already has a foothold at the port: When it launches satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, it often lands the reusable first-stage rocket boosters on a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean, then brings them back to a berth at the Port of L.A.

“I’m confident that we’re doing our part in securing this lease and keeping [SpaceX] here for the long haul,” Buscaino said last week. “The lesson I’ve learned is, because this industry is so fluid, there could be surprises along the way. And I’m hopeful that the surprise is the expansion of the workforce.”

The SpaceX facility could create 130 jobs, according to a document from the Port of L.A. That’s far fewer than in the 2018 proposal, which predicted the creation of about 700 jobs.

The new proposal does not include construction jobs. SpaceX didn’t submit a construction plan because the company is not sure what it will eventually build, said Marisa Katnich, the port’s director of cargo and industrial real estate. For now, SpaceX plans to refurbish five buildings at the site and may also raise a tent-like structure.

SpaceX plans to use its port facility for research, design and manufacturing. Although a SpaceX representative did not mention Starship during his presentation at Thursday’s meeting, he noted that one of the company’s goals is to create an interplanetary society and that Mars is part of that plan.

SpaceX says on its website that this year, it hopes to launch Starship on a test flight that — rather than aiming for Mars — would reach Earth’s orbit. In the past, the company has said its “aspirational” goal is to send cargo missions to Mars in 2022.

“We have ambitious goals for the [L.A. port] site, ambitious timetables,” said Matthew Thompson, senior director of environmental health and safety at SpaceX.

In withdrawing from the L.A. site last year, SpaceX said it had decided to build and test the Starship prototype in south Texas to “streamline operations.”

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The company tests rocket engines and other components in McGregor, Texas. It builds Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules and does its main design, engineering and manufacturing work in Hawthorne, and it launches from Florida as well as from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

During Thursday’s meeting, Harbor Commissioner Lucia Moreno-Linares noted last year’s reversal of plans and said she hoped that this time, “everybody delivers on their promises.”

The initial permit covers 12.4 acres at the former Southwest Marine site at Terminal Island, with an option to expand to 19 acres. It would last 10 years. SpaceX could then opt for two 10-year extensions.

The Southwest Marine site at Berth 240 has been derelict for 15 years. The location was first developed for shipbuilding in 1918 and was acquired by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp. not long after. During the heyday of World War II production, the shipyard produced about 40 Navy destroyers and employed 6,000 people.


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