The new factory will use the same tools, techniques and robots that SpaceX uses to build the rockets that it has been launching into space since 2006
Musk said. Those launches are still being done at SpaceX’s launch site at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but the rockets themselves will soon be coming back to Southern California.
First Stop – The Boring Machine
Prior to digging, Musk explained that SpaceX is using a boring machine from Germany that’s nicknamed Nannie. It’s big enough to fit cars on its conveyor belt and digs 50 feet below ground every 24 hours. The company will fill in those areas with cement when it’s done, making room for yet another tunnel that runs east-west under Los Angeles. It takes about two weeks to dig one [tunnel] segment, so we can make three of these per month, said Musk.
The tunnel-boring machine has already begun drilling, but SpaceX wasn’t sure how much progress it had made by press time. The first segment was finished two days ago, said Musk. We should be done with all three segments in about two weeks. And then we would have a sort of a soft opening for testing for maybe a week or so, and then have a grand opening event after that.
We’ll have a sort of soft opening. We may invite some people to go down and watch, but it will only be workers and invited guests. Then we’ll probably do a few more tests, a few more soft openings after that before we do a grand opening when there is actually people riding on it, said Musk. – Second Paragraph: When complete, according to Elon Musk—CEO of SpaceX —the system could see riders travel about 30 miles per hour for about 30 minutes. The entire trip from LAX to Westwood would take about eight minutes, assuming traffic is clear and there are no other delays along the way.
Second Stop – The Vertical Assembly Building
Once inside, you have to leave all camera equipment and cell phones behind. No taking pictures here. After a quick ID check, we pass through a set of doors into an expansive cavernous white hangar with an incredible amount of open space—SpaceX’s latest rocket factory. It is four times bigger than SpaceX’s old building in Hawthorne and has almost six times more square footage than SpaceX’s Florida rocket manufacturing facility (the one that created SpaceX’s rockets for resupply missions to the International Space Station). For comparison, just one door on one wall leads from California’s Hawthorne headquarters, which employs about 1,800 people.
The first thing you notice in Boca Chica is how damn big it is. The whole hangar, which SpaceX has leased for a decade (with options to renew for another five), covers 810,000 square feet—about six times larger than SpaceX’s main rocket building in Hawthorne. During our tour last week, Musk said that 80 percent of SpaceX’s South Texas workforce will be engineers and production personnel working on Starship. The rest are either people supporting those operations or security/logistics staff from SpaceX HQ down in California. All told, he says there will be about 1,000 people working at Boca Chica eventually.
And, of course, there’s that giant copper Starship prototype parked right in front of me. It’s a stunningly beautiful thing to behold and it’s hard not to be impressed with how far SpaceX has come since I saw my first Falcon 9 rocket back in 2008. At first glance it looks so fragile, so thin and small, but looking at its specs you quickly realize just how powerful and capable it really is. With over a million pounds of thrust at liftoff—roughly equivalent to more than 50 747 jetliners stacked on top of each other—SpaceX says it will be one of the most powerful launch vehicles ever built by humanity.
Final Stop – The Control Room
At one end of Boca Chica’s cavernous facility stands a gleaming aluminum structure that resembles an airplane hangar. Inside is something far more extraordinary: SpaceX’s enormous Starship hopper, dubbed Moa by its creators. The 46-meter-long spaceship—about as long as two semi trucks and about as tall as one—is SpaceX’s first Starship Hopper. It is part test vehicle and part prototype for a massive reusable rocket ship destined to one day travel to Mars or deep into Earth orbit, ferrying thousands of people per flight.
SpaceX says it aims to have a Starship hopper ready for short flights—about 50 meters off of its launch pad—by next year. However, there are no current plans to use it as a full-fledged rocket ship that actually carries people or payloads, according to people familiar with SpaceX’s plans. SpaceX’s ultimate goal is to launch paying customers into orbit on Starship in 2023.
The enormous spacecraft will be fabricated in a cavernous building near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas and then tested nearby before being transported via barge and truck to Florida, where SpaceX is currently assembling its rockets at historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, just south of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
However, it’s not clear when SpaceX will be ready to launch those first people on its spacecraft—especially if it needs to do additional testing before doing so. The biggest tests may come after that first trip into orbit. SpaceX has pledged to fly two paying customers around the moon in 2023 aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket and an as-yet-unrevealed Starship spaceship. Such a flight would require many more test flights and perhaps even another unmanned uncrewed trip around Earth or beyond before taking people on such a long voyage.
According to Musk, it takes four weeks to build and assemble a Falcon 9 rocket. But SpaceX’s first Starship prototype is not going anywhere, so it can be used to help with development of its giant ship. I think we will probably use that vehicle for ground tests until we have something else or something better in service, he said. He explained that depending on how many iterations of Starship are built, SpaceX might have a few or several versions of Starships on Earth for tests over time.
But Musk and SpaceX are also not afraid to use existing components when necessary. [SpaceX] have a lot of heritage, but we have to innovate a lot too, he said. So we’re going to try an iterative approach—build it, test it—and then tear it apart and make it better as we go along. We may find that some parts are so good that they make all future spaceships obsolete because there’s just no point in making more spaceships once you get there. There will probably be a few or several versions of Starship before everything is working how we want so I don’t think there will be any single version of Starship ever built here on Earth.
But to get there, Musk and SpaceX still have a lot of work to do. Musk said that once everything is optimized, it will take about 4 weeks to build each Starship from start to finish. We haven’t quite figured out how long it takes to refurbish them yet so we might end up making a few of them just as we make Starlink—he said—but we don’t know for sure yet. It may be like Falcon 9 where there are five or six versions before one was actually at peak production so I think there will be several Starships in existence before anyone really knows what their ultimate iteration is going to look like.
SpaceX is currently working to get Starlink up and running first before getting its Starship in orbit. It plans to build a global internet-providing network of 12,000 broadband satellites for low-latency, high-speed satellite internet across Earth by 2024. Starlink is a great opportunity but it’s going to be a long road to commercialization. We won’t have an idea until probably next year how many satellites are needed, how much capacity we need per satellite or which satellites will be used for Starlink and which will be used for SpaceX services, he said.
We will also probably have multiple variations of Starship at some point. And I think it’s possible that SpaceX might make or two Starships before anyone really knows what their ultimate iteration is going to look like. So there could be anywhere from three to five different versions of Starship before anyone knows exactly what that final version is going to look like and which of those versions are actually going to fly in an operational capacity for SpaceX services. In any case, Musk said he thinks it would be lame if SpaceX didn’t make at least a couple of Starships. If you put all your eggs in one basket and then that basket drops on your face, like say you only built one Falcon 9—that would be lame, he explained.
So, once Starlink is operational, Musk said SpaceX plans to launch its first version of Starship by 2020. That will be a minimum viable product and it will have some flight capabilities and initial propellant tanks. By 2022, SpaceX plans to have a somewhat more optimized Starship ready for operation but it will still be kind of early. And by 2024, he anticipates that Starlink will be nearing full commercialization and SpaceX’s fully-optimized Starship should be ready for service—albeit that may not necessarily mean there is just one version of Starship at that point!