LC-49 map
A map from the Kennedy Space Center's master plan showing the location of the proposed Launch Complex 49. The center is starting an environmental review of a proposal by SpaceX to build a Starship launch pad there. Credit: NASA/KSC

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is starting an environmental review of a proposed new launch facility there that would be used by SpaceX’s Starship launch system.

The center announced last week that it was starting the process of an environmental review of the proposed Launch Complex (LC) 49 in response to an inquiry from SpaceX. The center did not disclose a timeline for conducting the review but said it would precede any agreement with SpaceX to develop the site.

Launch Complex 49 is located to the northwest of Launch Complex 39B, the former Apollo and shuttle launch pad that will be used by the Space Launch System. The site was originally reserved in the 1960s for Launch Complex 39C but never developed.

“LC-49 has been a part of Kennedy’s master plan for several years,” said Tom Engler, director of center planning and development at KSC, in a Dec. 15 statement. A “notice of availability” for the site was last updated in 2014.

That master plan includes both LC-49 as well as a “future notional horizontal launch area” just to the north of the site. The plan also included LC-48, a pad for small launch vehicles to the southeast of LC-39A. KSC completed development of LC-48 last year, but the site has yet to be used for an orbital launch attempt.

Neither NASA nor SpaceX released additional details about the company’s plans for LC-49. KSC will hold a public “scoping period” in January for the environmental review to collect public input, which will likely involve some documentation about those plans

Development of LC-49 for Starship would be in addition to SpaceX’s effort to develop a launch site for the heavy-lift reusable vehicle at LC-39A. A September 2019 environmental review found no significant environmental impact to building a launch facility for Starship within the existing perimeter of LC-39A, separate from the pad currently used by Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

SpaceX started work on a launch mount for Starship at LC-39A in 2019 at a time when the company was pursuing parallel development efforts for the vehicle in Florida and in Boca Chica, Texas. The work in Florida, though, halted as SpaceX consolidated Starship work, including a series of low-altitude test flights, at the Boca Chica site the company calls Starbase.

SpaceX is now reviving development of an LC-39A pad for Starship. “Construction of Starship orbital launch pad at the Cape has begun,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, tweeted Dec. 3.

Musk later confirmed that referred to restarting work on a Starship pad at LC-39A. “39A is hallowed spaceflight ground – no place more deserving of a Starship launch pad! Will have similar, but improved, ground systems & tower to Starbase.”

SpaceX’s near-term focus, though, remains Starbase in Texas, as the company continues testing of Starship vehicles while awaiting completion of an environmental review required for the company to conduct orbital launch attempts there. Musk said Nov. 17 that the company hoped to get a license from the Federal Aviation Administration for Starship launches by the end of 2021, allowing the first orbital launch to take place as soon as January or February.

Tom Ochinero, vice president of commercial sales at SpaceX, reiterated that schedule during a panel discussion at World Satellite Business Week in Paris Dec. 13. “We’ve got a lot of technology milestones coming up on Starship, including our first orbital flight very early, maybe the January-February timeframe.”

Initial launches of Starship will fly the company’s own Starlink satellites before carrying payloads for other customers. “Next year we’ll be flying our internal customer, Starlink, just to prove it out,” he said, something that will also benefit insurers. “We fly our own internal payloads, we take that initial risk, and by the time the customers are ready to fly we’ve absorbed the initial super-high risk premium.”

He declined to say how many Starlink satellites would fly on those initial Starship launches, but noted the company hopes to launch “100 plus” satellites on each Starship. “It really depends on a lot of variables.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...