SpaceX Might Build BFR in Los Angeles

BFR servicing the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is looking to expand its footprint at the Port of Los Angeles in a move possibly related the manufacturing of its BFR booster.

SpaceX has entered into preliminary negotiations with the Port of Los Angeles for a lease that would expand the Hawthorne space company’s port facilities to manufacture “large commercial transportation vehicles.”

Port and company officials would not comment on what exactly would be built on the 18-acre site on Terminal Island, but public documents suggest that it will involve rockets or spacecraft.

SpaceX, which currently makes its rockets in Hawthorne, has plans to make a huge next-generation spaceship and rocket system known as BFR. The reusable spaceship and booster, which will measure more than 340 feet tall when stacked, is intended to eventually replace SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and its new Falcon Heavy heavy-lift rocket, which flew for the first time last month.

The Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners, which oversees port management and operations, voted last week to approve California Environmental Quality Act regulations necessary for the board to later vote on a lease for the proposed project.

  • Terry Stetler

    Clearly, the BFS test vehicle Musk and Shotwell say is under construction is being built elsewhere. Perhaps that tooling will be moved after the Terminal Island factory is up. Now, if only more info about the KSC BFR factory negotiations would leak….

  • publiusr

    Unlike California–we won’t tax/regulate him to death.

    We have a lot of bright folks here, in my home state

    The plant in CORDOVA, Ala is larger in some respects than MAF–and it is on a waterway.

    Perfect for BFR.

    I think BFS is the hopper craft–the manned part they are doing first, right?

  • Terry Stetler

    SpaceX wants factories near launch sites (KSC) or near its engineering pool early on (Terminal Island), the latter also being convenient for supplying Vandenberg operations by barge.

    BF Spaceship goes first as its the greater technical challenge. The BF Booster isn’t, SpaceX did a similar scaling jib in moving rrom the 1 engine Falcon 1 to the 9 engine, and much larger, Falcon 9.


    (all terms recently used by Musk, not that he’s consistant…)

    As far as Alabama goes, its a nice place but it shouldn’t be able to run roughshod over the nations space development. It should happen where it happens.

  • publiusr

    I don’t know about roughshod. Heck, all I heard from many was Kill MSFC chants.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I’m not familiar with LA geography, but is this the same area where the Hughes Hercules H4 was assembled? How fitting it would be if the BFR were built in the footprint of the H4. Uncle Howard would be proud.

  • I’d be very surprised if the early BFS test articles were full size–or even recognizably BFS test articles. A plausible campaign:

    1) Start with hopper-like craft to qualify Raptor throttling and control systems. This can be done at MacGregor.

    2) Go to sub-scale BFS with sea-level engine clusters only. Goal would be wring out the aerodynamics of the BFS before committing to full-scale.

    3) Build near-full-scale BFS to launch single-stage-to-suborbit, then reenter using a depressed trajectory to get full orbital heating.

    4) Integrate full-scale BFS onto a full- or sub-scale BFB for full-up orbital testing.

    5) Full-scale BFS to do an “interplanetary abort” to test full aerodynamic and thermal load on interplanetary reentry.

    At this point, you’d have a vehicle suitable for commercial cargo operations. You could then start doing all the stuff to get it crew-rated. (FWIW, I don’t think that BFB+BFS launched from Earth will ever be crew-rated. It’ll be fine for launching as an SSTO from either the Moon or Mars, and it’ll even be fine as an interplanetary spacecraft to board in LEO, but I just don’t believe that NASA–or anybody else–is going to consider a spacecraft that’s incapable of launch escape or in-flight abort from a booster with 31 engines as possessing an even remotely tolerable PLOC.)

  • The inland and intracoastal waterways (and Panama Canal) are an unsung hero of the Apollo project. I’d go as far to say that we wouldn’t have landed on the Moon without them. They totally determined how/where we built, transported and tested all that Apollo hardware. We had them, the USSR didn’t. The Saturn V worked every time, the N-1 failed every time. That wasn’t just an accident, America’s waterways made it happen.

    As long as America keeps building big boosters, those waterways will continue being a priceless asset to the nation’s space program.

  • Richard Malcolm

    SpaceX may not bother offering it to NASA for crew anyway.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    The City of MacGregor had restricted the size of the engines and the scope of their testing at the MacGregor test site.

    It is very unlikely SpaceX will do a sub-scale vehicle or vehicle without the outer mold lines of the BFS. Since it is in effect that is developing 2 or more separate vehicles.

    Launch escape and in-flight abort is the BFS separating from the BFB after it gets shutdown, Remember this is a booster with liquid motors that can be shut down and the propellant tanks de-pressurized unlike solid motors.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    First BFS will be full size. They have already built and tested a 12 metre tank, so moving to a 9 metre diameter is already “sub-scale”
    The 9 metres diameter precludes transport by road, and so no vehicle testing at McGregor. Early “hop” testing will be done at either Boca Chica or at sea.
    Aerodynamics will be almost entirely data based – SpaceX is a software company!!
    They will not piss about wasting time money and effort building all sorts of not quite full-scale models that prove very little that cannot be proven by data modelling. The tooling is for a 9 metre vehicle, not for a variety of smaller sizes.
    BFB is the “easy” part, substantially just a scaled-up F9 first stage, or at least will have a very similar flight profile as the return-to-launch-site F9 stages. The major technological changes are carbon fibre structure, ignition (spark), fuel (CH4), use of header landing tanks, pressurant (no helium) and control thrusters (no nitrogen). All of which have commonality with BFS, so building and flight testing first with BFS also covers much of the technological and flight issues of the booster. BFS also uses both the sea-level and vacuum versions of Raptor, which makes a two for the price of one engine testbed.
    BFB will have some unique accoustic/vibration and thermal issues, but F9/FH data, BFS testing, and software modelling, should cover much of that risk.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    If, as this article and other reports suggest, SpaceX build a BFR factory at Port LA, then that may be sufficient for their needs – at least for the first decade or so. Many have pooh poohed BFR airlines (I too am somewhat sceptical), but perhaps we should take Elon seriously, especially in regards to what it means for the definition of “launch site”. If a “launch site” is anywhere on Earth, or rather anywhere at sea, then any port might be considered to be “close” to any “launch site”.

  • Tom Billings

    “Heck, all I heard from many was Kill MSFC chants.”

    Those chants are mostly from those too reticent to join Jim Davidson’s old crowd pushing “NASA, Delenda Est!”.

    What is disliked is *not* Alabama, or even MSFC, but the LBJian politics that dominates NASA funding. MSFC simply is the most obvious example of it in HSF. MSFC could have plenty of money replacing SLS and JSC replacing Orion. Everyone would be happy with 20 technology development programs doing that, except the Alabama and Texas pols, who would have to trade 20 political favors in votes for every one favor they must trade today for SLS or Orion votes in Congress.

    *That* pre-industrial allocation of resources, leading to pre-industrial levels of productivity, is what is objected to. It is excused by the false idea of the 1930-1990 era that all resource allocations are equal, when they are *not* equal. Their relationship to the higher productivity of industrial society around the world is defined by Arnold Toynbee’s definition of the industrial revolution:

    “When a society moves from allocating resources by custom and tradition (moderns read here, by politics) to allocating resources by markets, it may be said to have undergone an industrial revolution.”

    During the 75 years of US spaceflight development, not one day has passed when the majority of R&D funding has not been allocated by a politician. The congressional guardians of privilege are interested in keeping their feudal serfs in the aerospace “industry” voting for them, and thus keeping their seats in Congress. *That* is what is objected to about the funding going to MSFC.

  • Tom Billings

    More particularly, they will continue being a priceless asset to the competitive nature of future launch vehicles, by keeping places outside the immediate launch zones in competition to participate in future space launch markets. That is, …if the politicians ever lare over-levered to let go the hold they have on those markets.

  • Terry Stetler

    Sooner than a decade for BFR factory #2. SpaceX, NASA and Space Florida are in negotiations for a BFR factory at KSC, likely near Blue Origin’s factory..

  • Michael Halpern

    They probably will, they just won’t ask them for funding

  • Michael Halpern

    Fortunately they don’t get a say in how private companies get their R&D budget or how they spend their money

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Here’s a thought – perhaps they want two facilities, one to be tooled for and specialise in the manufacture of BFS and the other for BFB. Then Raptor production can be out of Hawthorne.

  • publiusr

    LBJian politics is what kept NASA alive though. The solid South loves to cut science.

    But if NASA centers are in the South–they get support.

    Ironically, if, say–all the centers were moved to Florida, then NASA would only be seen as that one state’s “pork” even though money could actually be saved in the move.

    I want NASA to employ a lot of people. The “standing armies” make for pro-space voters.

  • Tom Billings

    “LBJian politics is what kept NASA alive though.”

    Which is why we got this, from my above comment.

    “Those chants are mostly from those too reticent to join Jim Davidson’s old crowd pushing “NASA, Delenda Est!”.”

    LBJian politics is what started NASA, in an era when progressives like Johnson were still concerned about looking like they wanted what Trump wants today, “America First”. In fact, LBJ wanted NASA as a campaign issue, to get him the Democratic nomination for the 1960 election. From the point where it failed to do that, LBJ used it as means to build solid backing for his next campaign, in 1964.

    The key is that keeping NASA alive is no where near enough! To be worthwhile NASA has to advance the settlement of the Solar System. No Congress will ever back that openly, because it is not politically profitable. It most certainly will not back efforts at spaceflight that have industrial levels of productivity, because that will not make it clear to constituents they owe their jobs to the local politicians.

    NASA is an affectation of reactionary progressivism that uses fancy high-tech to avoid the South’s oligarchs losing control through development of a real space industry.

    “The solid South loves to cut science.”

    Actually, what it loves to cut is academia, more and more, alongside many others throughout the country. Scientific investigation needs to get away from academia to the very great extent we do want it to survive. The last 50 years of sneering at America by academics, combined with their moral incompetence at observing the world around them and transmitting that to their students, has doomed them to irrelevance within the next 30 years, IMHO. They must be replaced by other means of transmitting knowledge. They must be replaced as organizers of scientific investigation. Academia is morally unfit to do it.

    NASA has been a means of holding political leverage in the South. It had *not*, until 2005 under Bush, begun to stimulate a Space Industry.

    Again, Toynbee’s definition lays out why that is so:

    “When a society moves from allocating resources by custom and
    tradition (moderns read here, by politics) to allocating resources by
    markets, it may be said to have undergone an industrial revolution.”

    With politicians insisting on getting credit for jobs in NASA Center districts, between 1979 and 2004 NASA HQ and JSC Turf Warriors were doing more to undercut private spaceflight, and real space industry, than anyone else. NASA *can* also do some of the technology development needed to settle the Solar System, as long as that is not what is focused upon politically.

  • duheagle

    Close. The Spruce Goose was mostly built in what is now the Playa Vista area of L.A. north of what is now LAX airport. The pieces were trucked to Long Beach where the final assembly hangar was built. The Spruce Goose was later moved from its long-time hangar to a purpose-built geodesic dome for public display near the mooring site of the Queen Mary. It stayed there for 11 years before being disassembled and moved to another museum in Oregon. The dome has since been used as a special events venue and as an enormous clear-span stage for movie production. The first feature film to use it was Stargate.

    The site SpaceX is leasing for its BFR-BFS plant is a bit west of the Spruce Goose’s long-time hangout. It’s inside the city limits of L.A. in a district known as San Pedro which includes the western half of Terminal Island on which the SpaceX site-to-be is located. The property has been described as Berth 240, but there are actually at least four berths with that number – 240A, 240B, 240C and 240Z. All are within Slip 240 which seems to be the northern boundary of the parcel SpaceX is leasing. The lease probably includes at least Berth 240Z and perhaps the entirety of Slip 240 as well. The property seems to have been formerly occupied by Southwest Marine.

    It may be that SpaceX’s BFR-BFS plans include a complete, vertically-integrated production complex eventually. Given that major parts of BFS are said to be under construction elsewhere by sub-contractors just now, the initial factory facility will most likely be a final assembly-only facility, rather like the Spruce Goose’s Long Beach hangar. Big subassemblies will arrive by water and finished BFSes will depart the same way bound for Boca Chica. At SpaceX’s relative leisure, a later facility in which said large subassemblies would be scratch-built could later be built on the same site. In parallel with the BFS assembly plant, it is said that an inspection/refurb facility is to be built to accommodate future F9/FH operations out of Vandenberg.

    As I live just up the Harbor Fwy. from San Pedro, I intend to pay the site a visit once or twice a month to track progress – more frequently if anything especially interesting develops.

  • duheagle

    Good description of how NASA would probably go about building BFS. Good thing SpaceX is doing it instead.

  • duheagle

    Raptor production almost certainly will be in Hawthorne. Engines are fairly small items. The Merlin line is there and is a well-oiled machine. The same staff can move seamlessly into Raptor production once initial development is done. Engine production areas are nickel-dime from a square footage standpoint compared to large rocket structures and tankage. Several Raptors at a time could easily go the few miles south from Hawthorne to Terminal Island on a single truck sortie. Not a lengthy or complex supply chain. Same applies to any other potential final assembly facilities – e.g., Boca Chica and Kennedy. All these places will also be doing F9/FH inspection/refurb. All engines and parts needed for this work will almost certainly be supplied out of Hawthorne as well.

  • duheagle

    I want NewSpace to employ a lot of people. And I’d like for them just to be voters, not “space voters.” That would require that space be essentially removed from the purview of government, though. That’s unlikely ever to happen completely, especially given the importance of space-based assets to the military services. But I think space will, in future, be much less a pure creature of government that it is at present.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Thanks for that excellent write up. Please let me know if you set up a published account of that progress. What a treat, and great to hear LA is going to continue to be a source of excellent and eccentric American aerospace.

  • #1 is a no-brainer, because you simply can’t land the silly thing without throttle and gimbal tests, and spending a bunch of money on anything bigger is silly. You want to make cheap smoking holes.

    I could see merging #2 with #3, or #3 with #4, but not all three of them. For 2/3, you can get data on heating and control a lot cheaper than you can by dealing with the 9-m mould. For 3/4, you can assume that #2 gave you enough aero data that a full-up launch is worth it.

    In no case can I see SpaceX doing interplanetary quals before they’ve got the orbital version up generating revenue. It simply doesn’t have to take anything more than GTO reentry speeds. So #5 is almost certainly a separate item.

  • publiusr

    To me it should be both/and. I want space to stay in gov’t–I support DoE as well. Private space? I value them as well.