SpaceX To Build Its Massive Rocket In Los Angeles

Los Angeles’ Mayor Eric Garcetti recently announced that SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket will be constructed at the Port of Los Angeles. Garcetti made the announcement during a State of the City speech on Monday, giving confirmation to a substantial amount of speculation about SpaceX’s plans for the city.

SpaceX apparently leased an 18-acre site at the Port of Los Angeles for the duration of 30 years. This is a good location for the company, as the port of Los Angeles is located near Long Beach, only about 20 miles away from the company’s headquarters. The company plans on constructing a manufacturing plant at the port, equipped with state-of-the-art technology.

SpaceX and the Port of Los Angeles

Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, recently said that the Port of Los Angeles has served as the base of operations for their west coast recovery operations ever since 2012 and that the company is excited to continue the partnership they have with the City of Los Angeles. Shotwell says that the Port will take on an ever more important role in the creation of the BFR and other space exploration technology. Los Angeles will help SpaceX create space exploration systems “capable of carrying crew and cargo to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond.”

Mayor Garcetti agreed with this sentiment, saying on Twitter that the BFR has the potential to take humanity “deeper into the cosmos than ever before.”

Said Garcetti of the SpaceX partnership:

If this year has taught us anything, it is to think big — to go after something unreachable. We have the confidence to look up to the stars, and the guts to realize our dreams.

SpaceX is currently in the process of moving equipment into temporary storage facilities and workshops at the site. The company will be creating the components of their rockets at the port because it will facilitate shipping to launch pads and test areas. Some of this equipment includes a tooling, a giant mold that will have carbon fiber wound around it. The carbon fiber will be used to create the main body of the BFS.

Computer renderings of the buildings at the Port of Los Angeles imply that SpaceX will load their booster segments and spaceship parts onto heavy barges, which will move them to Texas. SpaceX currently has a rocket testing facility in Texas and is expected to make their South Texas launch site operational late this year. The South Texas launch site may not be making orbital launches as soon as it becomes active, rather it may carry out suborbital testing of the BFR/BFS. Musk reportedly said that the BFR’s spaceship portion will be the most challenging part of the BFR to create, but that they hope to be conducting “short hopper flights” by early next year.

The BFR is a two-part launch system capable of carrying 150 tons of cargo as well as 100 people into space. The BFR’s two separate modules consist of a 190-foot tall reusable rocket booster a 156-foot tall reusable ship. After the initial launch, the ship is capable of being refilled while in orbit, then launched off to Mars, the Moon, or elsewhere. SpaceX is currently hoping that their first mission to Mars will happen between 2022 to 2024.

The BFR has been engineered to burn liquid methane as its fuel type. This is because liquid methane could potentially be manufactured on many different moons and planets throughout the solar system. The fact that the BFR is reusable has the potential to save millions of dollars, as currently rockets are disposed of after they’re used. This could make space exploration much cheaper and allow more people/companies the chance to go to space.

SpaceX Founder Elon Musk at a ground breaking ceremony at Vanderberg Air Force Base. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

SpaceX and Elon Musk have made their ambitious plans known to the world, with varying reactions. NASA has more or less ignored SpaceX’s attempts to build reusable rockets like the BFR, preferring to do things their own way. (NASA has their own mega-rocket booster, called the Space Launch System.) Yet the US Air Force has been quite forward about their willingness to work with the company, saying it would be “absolutely foolish” not to make use of SpaceX’s technology. SpaceX has launched rockets out of Vanderberg Air Force Base before, but time will tell if any of the devices created at the Port of Los Angeles will be used to carry US Air Force equipment.

SpaceX’s Giant Party Balloon

Beyond preparing for the construction and testing of the BFR, SpaceX is also experimenting with different methods to bring rockets back from orbit. Elon Musk recently said on Twitter that SpaceX will attempt to use a “giant party balloon” to “bring (a) rocket upper stage back from orbital velocity.”

Musk is likely referring to the upper stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon 9 rocket serves as the backbone of SpaceX’s operations currently, and while the majority of the rocket is reused after a flight, the upper stage of the rocket is scrapped. If Musk’s statements indeed refer to the Falcon 9, it could make the vehicle entirely reusable.

This wouldn’t be the first time that balloons have been used to slow down spacecraft that are entering into the Earth’s atmosphere and leaving orbit. NASA has previously used balloons in several space flight experiments, including attempting to use a “flying saucer” shaped balloon as a heat shield for landings on Mars. Other experiments include using balloons as inflatable parachutes.

If properly constructed, a balloon may be able to brake the craft and shield it from the immense heat that the craft builds up as it falls to Earth. Musk noted that a giant balloon made out of durable materials would be a device capable of retaining its shape across the various Mach regimes. Musk says that to successfully recover the upper stage of a rocket, SpaceX would need to retarget the descent of their rocket close to shore and position a catcher ship near the descent area.

SpaceX already has a catcher ship dubbed “Mr. Steven”, that drags along a giant net supported by a series of metal arms. It’s intended to catch payload fairings that drop from the Falcon 9 as it launches.

It remains to be seen exactly what Musk meant by “party balloon” and what SpaceX’s future endeavors will bring. For now, the city of Los Angeles has a long partnership with the company to look forward to.

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