SpaceX Is Secretly Building Launchpads On Water For Future Starship Missions

SpaceX’s Starship prototype SN9. RGVAerialPhotography/Twitter

After successfully sending humans into space and launching Falcon 9 rockets for over 100 times, SpaceX’s top priority from 2021 on is getting Starship, the giant spacecraft designed to carry cargo and up to 100 people on interplanetary trips, off the ground. The space company has by far built ten prototypes and tested eight of them at it Boca Chica, Texas development site. Future operational Starships, however, will likely not lift off there, but from floating launchpads in the middle of the ocean.

Public records uncovered by reporters for NASASpaceflight reveal that last year SpaceX bought two deepwater oil rigs from a bankrupt company and plans to convert them into launch ships for future Starship rockets.

The pair of rigs, named Deimos and Phobos, after the two Martian moons, are in the Port of Brownsville near SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility. They were sold by Houston-based Valaris, the world’s largest owner of offshore oil rigs, in July 2020 for $3.5 million each to a limited liability corporation called Lone Star Mineral Development, which was incorporated just a month earlier and registered in the name of SpaceX CFO Bret Johnsen.

Elon Musk has hinted in a tweet last year that SpaceX will build “floating, superheavy-class spaceports for Mars, moon and hypersonic travel around Earth.”

The tweet was posted shortly before Lone Star Mineral Development was incorporated. Since then, SpaceX has been actively hiring for offshore operations positions to build “a team of engineers and technicians to design and build an operational offshore rocket launch facility,” according to its career site.

If successful, SpaceX will make history (again) by launching super-heavy space missions from seaborne platforms. Although the concept isn’t new—the U.S. and Russia had a sea launch vessel developed with other nations for orbital missions between 1999 and 2014—no country or private company has launched deep space missions from such platforms.

In June 2019, China became the first country to launch a rocket at sea without the help of multinational partnership when China’s National Space Administration launched a Long March 11 rocket from a launch pad on board a ship in the Yellow Sea.

SpaceX currently has two Starship prototypes sitting at Boca Chica ready for tests. Last month, the SN8 prototype successfully completed a high-altitude flight to about 40,000 feet and provided key research data despite crashing at the last minute of landing.

Its successor, SN9, has been undergoing static fire tests in recent days as SpaceX prepares it for another high-altitude flight. SpaceX Is Secretly Building Launchpads On Water For Future Starship Missions