Is SpaceX Retrofitting Oil Rigs as Launchpads?

An offshore oil drilling rig.

Two oil rigs off the Texas coast have been purchased by a company that has ties to Elon Musk's SpaceX. (Image: Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons)

SpaceX has hosted many land-based prototype launches from its site in Boca Chica, Texas. For example, in December 2020, the first launch of the Starship prototype, which the company hopes will eventually lead to commercial space flights to Mars, took place. But now, is SpaceX retrofitting oil rigs to conduct launches from platforms located off the Texas coast as well?

Deimos and Phobos, well-known as the names of Mars’ moons, are also the new names given to two oil rigs that appear to have been bought by SpaceX right off the Texas coast. NASASpaceflight, a well-known space news website, reported that SpaceX intends to transform these rigs into spaceflight launchpads for their Starship rockets. 

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NASASpaceflight identified the buyer of the oil rigs as Lone Star Mineral Development LLC. The LLC was incorporated in June 2020 and is registered under the name of Bret Johnson, who is a SpaceX executive. While SpaceX has not yet made public its involvement in the purchase of the oil rigs, the news wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
The company that bought the oil rigs has one principal on record — SpaceX executive Bret Johnson. (Image: Andreistanescu via Dreamstime)

Public records show that the sale of the two oil rigs off Texas’s coast from the oil company Valaris, now bankrupt, took place in August 2020. The oil rigs were sold for US$3.5 million each. They are ultra-Deepwater and semi-submersible, but significant and sizable retrofitting is needed to make the oil rigs ready to support space operations.

SpaceX is building spaceports

Elon Musk also tweeted about SpaceX building superheavy-class floating spaceports for the Moon, Mars, and hypersonic travel around the Earth. It seems they are hiring engineers for the same. Musk sent the tweet a week before Lone Star Mineral Development LLC’s incorporation.

SpaceX, since last year, has been recruiting people for many offshore positions. The company also posted that it was assembling a team of technicians and engineers to help design a functioning offshore rocket launch facility.

There are some significant advantages to floating launchpads over land-based ones. The major ones are less noise and a drastic drop in risk for the people living nearby. Offshore launchpads will also be beneficial in dealing with the logistical complications of launching and landing the rockets. At the same time, there will be less disruption to other aviation and aerospace operations.

A rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
There are some significant advantages to floating launchpads over land-based ones. (Image: Mellisandre via Dreamstime)

Interestingly enough, SpaceX would not be the first to use an offshore launchpad. A consortium led by Boeing transformed a semi-submersible deep-water drilling unit into a launchpad in the 1990s. Conversion of the Ocean Odyssey was completed in 1997 and more than 30 rockets carrying satellite payloads were successfully launched from the floating facility between 1999 and 2014. 

Elon Musk envisions that his company will be offering commercial space flights for passengers to Mars by 2026. For now, however, the future use of the oil rigs and of SpaceX’s Texas operations, in general, remains up in the air since the Federal Aviation Administration released a call for public input about the Boca Chica launch site.

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