Elon Musk’s industrial empire continues it methodical expansion.
This week the Federal Aviation Administration signed off on SpaceX’s plan to build a spaceport in South Texas. Everyone should be excited about this, because Musk wants to construct the kind of spaceport people are used to seeing in sci-fi movies and take launch technology up a notch. The goal, more or less, will be to create an automated station where machines fuel the rocket, stand it up, and send it off. If all goes according to plan, the spaceport technology would result in a drastic reduction in the time needed to go from launch to launch.
SpaceX has been staging its launches at NASA and military sites in Florida and California. It recently secured sole access to launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. During a recent interview, Musk told me that SpaceX felt it could tweak 39A to suit a lot of its needs. The company plans to add automated equipment for tracking its rockets and monitoring safety, which should speed up the launch process. The government currently needs about a day or two to switch its systems over from tracking a rocket from another company to one from SpaceX. “We need to install dedicated equipment for us that has an autonomous safety system that doesn’t depend on someone pushing a button to do the tracking,” Musk says. “You install a set of redundant avionics on the rocket that monitor its position, and if it flies outside of an agreed-upon path, it initiates a destruct sequence.”
The new site in Texas, though, would give SpaceX a clean slate to put its unique spin on a spaceport. Knowing Musk, I believe this would mean an ultrafuturistic design coupled with loads of automation. The space industry could certainly benefit from this type of modernization, since it’s still relying, in most cases, on decades-old sites that were mainly built to send up missiles.
The SpaceX spaceport will be in Cameron County, where the company has been gobbling up land not far from the border with Mexico and near the cities of McAllen and Brownsville. The FAA has granted SpaceX approval (pdf) for 12 commercial launches per year on a 56.5 acre parcel of land. SpaceX would mostly be launching its current Falcon 9 rockets and its upcoming Falcon Heavy rockets.
Musk’s ultimate goal is to get to Mars, and he wants to be able to perform several launches a day, so that enough equipment and people could be sent to the planet to sustain life. The Texas site represents the first steps toward perfecting some of the launch technology needed to pull this off.
SpaceX currently does its rocket testing at a site in the center of Texas that used to belong to Beal Aerospace Technologies. It also has a massive factory in Los Angeles. Through Tesla Motors (TSLA), Musk has a car factory in Silicon Valley, a design studio in Los Angeles, dozens of retail stores, and an expanding worldwide network of charging stations. The company will soon start building a couple of giant battery factories in the U.S. as well. SolarCity (SCTY), where Musk serves as chairman and majority shareholder, recently paved the way to begin building a massive solar-panel factory in New York.
When you total all this up, it becomes clear that Musk is building an unprecedented industrial megaoperation. Setting up factories in such states as California, Texas, and New York could give Musk some much-needed political levers. His companies have faced fierce resistance from incumbents in the automotive and aerospace industries who have used their political pull to hinder such efforts as Tesla’s attempts to sell cars directly to consumers and SpaceX’s bids to handle launches for the military.