Interview with KSC director of center planning on Starship at LC-49

starship launch

Space fans have long anticipated SpaceX’s next rocket, Starship. While, to this point, most of the early development and testing has taken place in Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX intends to launch Starship from Florida. We recently learned that, in addition to the LC-39A, SpaceX would like to use LC-49 to launch and land Starship Super Heavy vehicles.

We had the opportunity to speak with Tom Engler, the director of center planning & development at Kennedy Space Center.

If you haven’t yet, go check out our initial story on LC-49 and Starship.

Brief history of Starship in Florida

Kennedy Space Center has a long history. LC-39A launched everything from Apollo 11, to the first Space Shuttle mission, to the return of crewed launches to the US – Demo-2.

In 2018, Space Florida worked with SpaceX to fund the construction of the Starship launch mount at LC-39A. SpaceX halted that east-coast work, instead running the Starship testing campaign in Boca Chica, Texas.

Recently, work on Starship has started to return to Florida, with SpaceX resuming construction on the Starship launch mount at historic LC-39A.

SpaceX will continue to test and develop Starship in Texas, but it is preparing its Florida facilities to be able to accommodate launches from the much larger rocket.

Starship and the future of SpaceX

In a previously leaked email, Elon Musk said that Starship is imperative to the company, “What it comes down to, is that we face a genuine risk of bankruptcy if we can’t achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year.”

While the specific claim of bankruptcy is extremely unlikely, Starship is still essential to the company’s future. The rocket is necessary for the company’s much more financially strong Starlink V2 satellites. Additionally, Starship was selected as NASA’s Human Landing System for the Artemis program and is expected to be the rocket to carry humans back to the surface of the Moon.

In order to complete some of these missions, many separate launches will be necessary, including the actual Lunar Starship and several other tanker ships. To support the high number of launches having many Starship launch pads is optimal.

SpaceX currently has one Orbital launch pad in Boca Chica, with plans for two. The launch pad at LC-39A is under construction and LC-49 is a proposed site. Additionally, SpaceX owns two oil rigs that will be converted into offshore launch and landing platforms.

Interview with Tom Engler, KSC director of center planning & development

We had the opportunity to speak with Kennedy Space Center’s Director of Center Planning and Development Tom Engler on this proposed launch site and Starship at Kennedy Space Center.

NASA and SpaceX are still in early talks about the project, so a lot of the project is still being worked and decided on, but the interview offered some more insight into the site and NASA’s goals with the project.

Transcript

Below is a transcript of the interview, emphasis is our own.

From NASA’s perspective, what made LC-49 a good option for SpaceX and Starship?

If you go back into the history of Kennedy Space Center and look at some of the early maps, the intent was always to move north for new launch pads. So back in the ’60s they actually had two launch pads, 39C and D, identified on their planning maps. So understanding that I think and really taking a look the ability to develop another launch pad and also trying to stay within the spirit of a lot of the public comments we received during our environmental process for the 2014 Master Plan – A lot of the comments basically wanted Kennedy to stay within the existing secure perimeter – so taking all that into consideration, we had identified at that time the area that is now identified as Launch Complex 49 as a potential for development for a medium to heavy class launch pad.

And given its remoteness from the rest of the center, I do realize of course it’s next to the beach [Playalinda], the national seashore, and all that, but as far as proximity to more occupied areas, it was a good spot to… layout as a potential for development. So that’s what we did in 2014, and we included it as part of our Notice of Availability – which has been effectively open since 2015 – as a place where a company could develop on Kennedy Space Center. And so, during that time we have had a couple of inquiries regarding 49, none of which really came to fruition for a number of different reasons. And now with SpaceX’s desire, of course, to launch Starship more frequently from the east coast they have determined that Launch Complex 49 would be a good spot to expand their operations into.

When did SpaceX first express interest in LC-49?

He did not have the date on hand, but they followed back up, informing me that SpaceX reached out about the Notice of Availability for Launch Complex 49 back on June 7, 2021.

Does NASA hope to see HLS launches from LC-49, or would that remain exclusive to LC-39A?

From a NASA/Kennedy perspective, we’re agnostic as to where any of this launches from. The intent of any of the capabilities that have been developed commercially and our support of those is to effectible enhance the American ability to launch rockets. So, the different agreements that we have, we don’t work on a business case for the company, we don’t identify or mandate what they should or should not do at a particular location. What Kennedy is here to do is to enable, and I think we’ve been very effective at doing that, especially over the last six or seven years as companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and Boeing and all have come in and set up commercial operations here. We have, I think, been very effective at working with these companies to allow them to succeed but we always provide the kind of support that we are allowed to provide within the law. And that basically is the kind of things like security, fire and rescue, and those kinds of capabilities that we have – almost like being city manager of the center. So we don’t say, ‘Yeah, you need to launch this here, and that there.’ That’s not what we’re doing, we allow the companies to do what they feel they need to wherever they need to do it.

Has a more solid financial agreement been made with SpaceX to lease LC-49? And how long would that be?

We have not yet begun negotiations with SpaceX on an agreement, and we haven’t gotten into those kinds of terms and conditions, so we’re still working on it. The most important piece right now is the environmental piece that is ongoing to ensure the type of development they’re planning there the environmental impact is minimized or eliminated to the maximum extent possible. So we’re working with SpaceX and our environmental team that’s on center is outstanding and will ensure that whatever happens there is done within the bounds of ensuring our stewardship of the environment.

If the environmental assessment all goes through as planned, what sort of structures could we expect to see come to LC-49?

That’s a really good question for SpaceX, they’re designing the pad area, and you’ll see some of that as part of the environmental process. They have to identify what they want to build and where, and then whatever mitigations they perform as a part of that will be identified also. And the other thing you’ll see is a list of alternatives, if there are any, for what it is they’re trying to do. So all of that will be identified in the environmental assessment process and will be public record.

Is there an anticipated timeline?

That’s something you’ll have to ask SpaceX for. We’re working as hard as we can get it done as quickly as possible within the boundaries of what we’re allowed to do. We have to follow the process and that’s what we’re going to do, and SpaceX is doing that with us, so we’ll ensure that we do that as quickly as possible but I don’t know of a good timeline right now.

Has SpaceX reached out about any other locations for Starship at the Eastern range?

To my knowledge, the two locations they’re looking at are 39A and 49 for Starship launches. I don’t know of anywhere else they have inquired regarding that, so that’s what we’re proceeding with right now.

Anything else you would like to add?

From our perspective, I know there’s a lot of concern in the public with regard to environmental impact, so I want to highlight our environmental team, and they are really passionate, along with our planning team. So between us here in my office with our planning team and the environmental team in the spaceport integration and services office, there’s a lot of passion about ensuring that our environment is maintained and made better as we go through and do all these things.

So, I know it seems a little counterintuitive that we’re going to construct something but actually make our environment maybe a little bit better, but there will be a lot of remediation that occurs that is a part of this if it happens, and again, our collective team here at Kennedy, and I know SpaceX as well, is going to do their utmost to ensure that any impacts to the environment are minimized. We’ve done a lot on the center to really improve the conditions that have developed over the years, and so a lot of activity is going on to make everything better.

The process will be followed as far as the environmental process – that is part of the national environmental policy act. And the public will have an opportunity to comment, so we’re looking forward to that part of the process as well and will be sure to address all the comments that we get as a part of the process. And I think we’ll end up with a good solution all the way around.

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