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SpaceX gets approval to build its Mars spaceship at Port of L.A.

SpaceX Starship
A prototype of Starship in September 2019 at SpaceX’s South Texas facility.
(SpaceX)

SpaceX’s road map to Mars now includes the Port of Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles City Council approved a permit Tuesday that allows the Elon Musk-led company to use a site on Terminal Island at the port to build aerospace parts.

With the vote, SpaceX is now cleared to start work at the site; last week, the L.A. Board of Harbor Commissioners green-lighted the permit.

SpaceX representatives told L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino’s office that the company was interested in the port site because it needed additional manufacturing capacity for its Starship spaceship and rocket booster. A SpaceX representative at last week’s harbor commissioners meeting did not mention Starship by name during his presentation of the project, but he said the company would use the port site to further its goal of creating an interplanetary society that includes Mars.

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The site will be used for engineering, manufacturing and research and development work on Starship, Buscaino said minutes before Tuesday’s vote.

“It’s crazy that here we are in 2020 preparing ourselves to send people to Mars, and it’s going to happen in our own backyard, in San Pedro,” he said. “We are becoming a spaceport.”

If the port announcement feels like déjà vu, there’s a reason.

In 2018, the company said it would build its Mars rocket and spaceship at the port and got approval from the Board of Harbor Commissioners and the L.A. City Council to lease that same swath of land on Terminal Island.

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A year later, SpaceX changed its mind and moved the work to Texas, citing a need to “streamline operations.”

The company is currently building prototypes of the Starship system at its facility near Boca Chica Beach in south Texas. In Southern California, it manufactures Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules in Hawthorne, the site of its headquarters.

Last month, a company official approached Buscaino and the Harbor Department about reviving the port plan.

“We are just fired up over this renewed interest,” Buscaino said in an interview this month. “We’re creating a Silicon Harbor where you’re going to have ideas and see before our own eyes the build-out of Starship.”

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SpaceX told Buscaino that it wanted to move quickly to build out the port site for its project. But the company does have the right to terminate the permit within 180 days of it going into effect.

On Tuesday, SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment about the results of the vote or how it will proceed now that it has the necessary approvals.

The initial permit covers about 12.4 acres at the former Southwest Marine site at Terminal Island with an option to increase to 19 acres. SpaceX has said it will refurbish some of the buildings there and may also add a temporary tent-like structure.

The company wanted a spot by the water because the spacecraft and parts it plans to build will be too large to transport by road and would need to be moved to the eventual launch site — which could be in Texas or Florida — by barge or ship.

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The Terminal Island site was first developed for shipbuilding in 1918 and acquired four years later by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp. During its World War II heyday, the shipyard built about 40 destroyers and employed 6,000 people.

After the war, the site housed ship repair work and stored Navy oil tankers. It has been derelict for the last 15 years.

The SpaceX project could create 130 jobs, according to a document from the Port of L.A.

SpaceX would pay an initial annual rent of $1.7 million, plus yearly increases based on the consumer price index. The company can also qualify for rent credits if it improves the property.

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The City Council approved the permit on a 12-0 vote. Councilmen Mike Bonin, Jose Huizar and John Lee did not vote.


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