ENSCO rig similar to Phobos and Deimos
An oil rig in the same class as the ones SpaceX purchased with plans to convert into launch platforms. SpaceX has since dropped those plans and sold the rigs. Credit: ENSCO

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has abandoned efforts to convert two oil rigs into launch platforms for its Starship vehicle, but the company still believes that offshore launch platforms will be part of its long-term plans.

In 2020, SpaceX acquired two oil rigs, which it subsequently named Phobos and Deimos after the two moons of Mars. The company planned to convert the rigs into offshore launch platforms that would be used for its Starship vehicles.

“SpaceX is building floating, superheavy-class spaceports for Mars, moon & hypersonic travel around Earth,” tweeted SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk in June 2020, shortly after job postings for “offshore operations engineers” were posted on SpaceX’s website.

Phobos has been at the port of Pascagoula, Mississippi, since January 2021, while Deimos arrived there in March 2022. Both were there to be refitted as launch platforms, but there has been little noticeable activity on either vessel for months.

Recent shipping manifests published by the port show that both are scheduled to leave the port in the next month. Deimos is scheduled to depart Feb. 20 while Phobos will leave March 12. The manifests do not list their destinations.

However, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told reporters after a presentation at the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 8 that the company had sold the rigs after concluding they were not suited to serving as launch platforms.

“We bought them. We sold them. They were not the right platform,” she said. She didn’t disclose when SpaceX sold the rigs or to whom.

Shotwell said the company needed to first start launching Starship and better understand that vehicle before building offshore launch platforms. “We really need to fly this vehicle to understand it, to get to know this machine, and then we’ll figure out how we’re going to launch it.”

She said she expected offshore platforms to eventually play a role to support an extraordinarily high launch cadence. “We have designed Starship to be as much like aircraft operations as we possibly can get it,” she said in the conference presentation. “We want to talk about dozens of launches a day, if not hundreds of launches a day.”

She didn’t elaborate in the presentation where those launches would take place. The company’s current Starship launch pad at its Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, is limited in the number of orbital launches it can host by an FAA environmental review and state regulations for access to a nearby beach. The company is building another Starship launch site at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, but it’s unclear how many launches that site, as well as an increasingly active Eastern Range, can handle.

“We’ll have many pads” to support that high launch rate, she later told reporters. “I think we’ll have a lot of sea-based platforms as well. We have to see how this ship goes.”

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...