SpaceX Is Building Its BFR in Los Angeles, and Congress May Not Be Happy

SpaceX Is Building Its BFR in Los Angeles, and Congress May Not Be Happy

As SpaceX ramps up rocket production and rehabilitation, it’s going to need new facilities. That can be tricky for any company, but it’s a particularly difficult problem when you need to build enormous rockets suitable for interplanetary missions with large payload fairings like SpaceX’s upcoming BFR (Big Falcon Rocket). SpaceX appears to have chosen Los Angeles for its next rocket facility, and certain members of Congress may not be pleased by that selection.

A new document from the Port of Los Angeles summarizes an environmental study undertaken on behalf of a proposed client and SpaceX subsidiary called WW Marine Composites, Ars Technica reports. WWMC seeks to use land adjacent to Berth 240 to “design, develop, and manufacture prototypes and first-generation models of specialized commercial transportation vessels.” All vehicles are specified as requiring water transport due to their size, and the site would also support recovery operations undertaken by Space Exploration Technologies — an obvious reference to SpaceX’s drone ships and their first-stage booster recovery operations.

SpaceX Dragon V2
SpaceX Dragon V2

SpaceX’s commercial spaceflight program and cooperation with NASA has been to the mutual benefit of both organizations, but not everyone in Congress seems to see things that way. Congressman Mo Brooks has offered a new bill in Congress, the ALSTAR (American Leadership in Space Technology and Advanced Rocketry) Act. The Act would declare that the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama is “NASA’s lead center for rocket propulsion and establishes it as essential to sustaining and promoting US leadership in rocket propulsion and developing the next generation of rocket propulsion capabilities.”

While there’s no proof that the two events are directly related, they speak to an ongoing tension between the United States’ commercial and government-funded spaceflight ventures — and offer a window into part of the reason why NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is beyond schedule and vastly over budget. When Congress appropriated funds for the SLS, it specified which technologies, facilities, and contractors NASA was expected to use. This is anything but advantageous for NASA, which finds its hands tied in many particulars, including mandates that it continue to base its spacecraft on rockets and technology first developed in the 1970s. Brooks has also spoken against SpaceX, noting recently (and in complete contravention of facts) that SpaceX would fly its demo mission for the crewed Dragon capsule without life support.

While issues like this don’t account for all of issues with NASA and its manned spaceflight program, one reason the space agency finds itself hamstrung is because some members of Congress treat it like a jobs program, some want to defund it altogether, and some actually think it ought to be exploring the cosmos. If SpaceX starts hitting its more aggressive commercial targets and rolls out a BFR that’s years ahead of anything NASA can field, expect these tensions to deepen.