Space Coast looks toward the future with port and factory expansions

by Justin Davenport

The space facilities around Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast are being prepared for a major ramp-up in flight activity over the coming months, years, and decades. This increase in spaceflight activity not only requires new launch pads and upgrades to processing facilities but also expanded factories and new additions to Port Canaveral. The port additions are to accommodate a new generation of reusable rocket stages beyond Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

NSF’s Max Evans and Julia Bergeron conducted a recent flyover of the Space Coast that not only gives us a look at the progress of these upgrades but also hints at flight activity to come this year and next. SpaceX has resumed work on the Starship launch facility at the Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A while Blue Origin second stage hardware was seen being tested. 

In addition, Relativity’s launch facility for Terran R is progressing and NASA is working on the Mobile Launcher 2 (ML-2) for SLS Block 1B. Airbus is also expanding its factory in the area for additional satellite production. Finally, Port Canaveral has decided on a plan to build additional facilities to accommodate ships involved in spaceflight activity, notably Blue Origin’s barge that would host New Glenn landings.

Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center as of the beginning of May 2024. (Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF/L2)


SpaceX has not only resumed work on the Starship pad at LC-39A but has also upgraded its current launch infrastructure for Falcon family vehicles. In addition, the SpaceX payload processing facility at the Cape has gotten a fresh coat of paint. The Roberts Road facilities, meanwhile, have been expanded even as the site still hosts some tower sections that are destined for the Starbase facility in Texas.

LC-39A’s Starship launch site recently had concrete legs removed that were supposed to be the base of the orbital launch pad. This points to work on the foundation underneath the pad. A new design for the Florida Starship pads as opposed to the current orbital launch pad at Starbase is possible, but it remains to be seen whether a new flame trench will be added to the complex.

Some scaffolding has been removed from LC-39A’s Starship launch tower, and it is eventually planned to add the systems required to operate the existing Mechazilla “chopstick” arms and all other functions necessary to launch Starship. This would include adding quick disconnect hardware and fuel lines.

A set of Mechazilla “chopstick” arms being worked on at Roberts Road near the Hangar X2 building. (Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF/L2)

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has indicated that the company plans to start Starship operations at the LC-39A facility in mid-2025. Therefore it is expected to see much additional work on the Starship launch tower and pad in the coming months.

Two Starship launch facilities in Florida are planned to go along with two in Texas. Besides LC-39A, a Starship launch facility is planned for the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) side of the Cape. Current candidates are SLC-37B, which recently hosted the last ever Delta family flight, and a new complex named LC-50. Once the program’s additional launch facilities are built up, Starship’s launch cadence will substantially increase.

Also happening at LC-39A is an upgrade of the Falcon family launch infrastructure there. New liquid oxygen tanks have been added to the complex to allow for more flexibility in recycling countdowns for Falcon Heavy missions in the event of scrubs. 

Two Starship launch tower segments are being worked on at the SpaceX Roberts Road facility in Florida. (Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF/L2)

Near SLC-40 at CCSFS, the SpaceX payload processing facility has received some paintwork in the SpaceX corporate colors of black and white. A more impactful upgrade to this facility is a new Starlink community gateway antenna, which is featured on SpaceX’s major installations. This gateway is capable of up to 10 gigabits of data throughput per second. 

At the Roberts Road facility, launch tower sections destined for the Starbase facility in Texas are being outfitted with stairs and other hardware before they are shipped by marine vessel to Brownsville. A set of Mechazilla “chopstick” arms was also being assembled and prepared before its shipment to Texas to build out the second orbital launch tower there.

The Hangar X2 building at Roberts Road is being expanded on its north side, and a new drainage system with pipes leading to the retention pond on the west side of the complex has been seen. A new small building at the facility has been worked on, and a new communications tower has also been built.

Blue Origin’s Exploration Park campus as of early May 2024. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF/L2)

Blue Origin

The sprawling Blue Origin facility at Exploration Park is seeing some new additions. The new Composite Assembly Building – now to become the Lunar Assembly Facility – on the south side has seen progress in building up its foundation, with rebar installation spotted along with workers and vehicles on the site.

Additional land near this building is also being prepared, with piles of sand having been spread out since April. A new parking lot on the north side has had its foundation laid out, and a new office building is to be constructed by that lot. 

New Glenn preparations for its first flight, scheduled by the end of this calendar year, are proceeding, with some hardware being seen for the new heavy-lift rocket. A second stage, thought to be flight hardware, was spotted being tested in the 2CAT building. This stage does not have its paint job or presumably its engines yet but seemed to be undergoing pressure testing.

A New Glenn second stage, thought to be a flight article, being tested in the 2CAT building. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF/L2)

An additional partial New Glenn first stage article has been seen at Exploration Park as well. This article was shorter than the first stage pathfinder seen earlier this year and appears to be missing its interstage and other tank sections.

The TCAT first stage testing facility had its main door closed so it is unclear if anything was happening there during the flyover. However, new New Glenn hardware sections were seen nearby, likely indicating that production of additional vehicles was underway.

Launch Complex 36 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. This facility will host New Glenn launches. (Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF/L2)

Blue Origin’s launch pad at LC-36 is currently empty, while the second stage transporter-erector is back at the hangar. The first stage transporter rig is no longer next to the construction site, where it had been seen in April. In addition, the Jarvis hardware that was seen being scrapped is now gone.

With Blue Origin still planning to fly the first New Glenn flight — the first of four needed to qualify the vehicle to launch national security payloads — by the end of this year, it is possible that activity at LC-36 could happen soon. Besides renewed activity at the launch pad, FCC and FAA licensing are also items to watch before New Glenn makes its inaugural flight later this year with NASA’s two Mars-bound ESCAPADE payloads.

Launch Complex 16 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. This is Relativity’s launch facility. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF/L2)

Other companies

SpaceX and Blue Origin are not alone in working on their facilities. Relativity is hard at work on building up LC-16 at CCSFS for its upcoming Terran R launch vehicle. Foundation work is being performed for the horizontal integration facility and water lines are being added to the launch pad, while other work is also being done at the launch facility. 

Much work remains to be done before the partially reusable Terran R’s first flight, currently expected in 2026. Terran R is designed to lift heavier payloads than the Falcon 9 and will also be competing with New Glenn and Vulcan.

Airbus U.S. Space & Defense, Inc. has bought out Eutelsat OneWeb’s 50 percent stake in the Airbus OneWeb Satellites (AOS) joint venture and is now the sole owner of the AOS factory across the street from Blue Origin’s Exploration Park facility. 

The ML-2 launch platform for SLS Block 1B under construction, behind the yellow and red cranes. (Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF/L2)

This factory is currently capable of building two satellites per day, having finished over 600 satellites for OneWeb, and is now equipped to build the Arrow line of satellites. Airbus is currently conducting foundation work to expand the AOS factory to respond to increased demand for small satellites, and the facility will eventually cover a footprint of 4,500 square meters.

Bechtel, contracted by NASA to build ML-2 for the SLS program, started the build-out of the platform in August 2023. ML-2’s base has grown and this large, heavy structure has now been lifted 18 inches by four self-propelled modular transporters to prepare the base to be lifted onto six large mounts already in the crawler yard. 

After ML-2 is mounted, a launch tower will be built on the platform. ML-2 will be needed to support SLS Block 1B launches starting with Artemis IV, now expected to fly at the end of this decade, as the existing ML-1 platform cannot be readily modified to support Block 1B as well as the current Block 1 version of SLS.

A Falcon 9 first stage standing at Port Canaveral with Just Read the Instructions in the foreground. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF/L2)


Port Canaveral’s facilities have long hosted marine activity related to spaceflight, such as visits by ULA’s barge that have delivered Delta and Atlas rockets, as well as being the home port for NASA’s MV Liberty Star and MV Freedom Star ships during the Space Shuttle era.

These ships retrieved the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters from the sea after each flight for return to a factory in Utah for refurbishment. These ships also operated from the port to retrieve debris after the disastrous launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on the STS-51L mission in January 1986.

However, the port’s involvement in spaceflight activity is growing due to SpaceX’s recovery of Falcon 9 boosters and fairings after nearly every flight as well as its Crew and Cargo Dragon operations. Other vehicles featuring reuse capabilities, such as New Glenn and Terran R, are expected to operate from the Space Coast in the not-too-distant future, necessitating additional planning for Port Canaveral.

Artist’s impression of a New Glenn booster landing on Blue Origin’s previously-planned recovery ship. Plans have changed in the past few years, with Blue now intending to use a converted barge similar to SpaceX’s approach. (Credit: Blue Origin)

SpaceX is already having to coordinate its marine traffic operations with other users of the port such as various cruise lines and military warships, as Port Canaveral’s traffic and business has increased. Space Florida is proposing to expand Port Canaveral to accommodate Blue Origin’s New Glenn recovery ship and other users in the future. Space Florida has therefore commissioned a feasibility study as of April 2024.

Space Florida is studying near-term (five to 10 years) and longer-term (10 to 50 years) solutions as the current port facilities will not be able to handle the exponential growth in spaceflight traffic that is expected. Up to five spaceflight companies are expected to launch and land boosters 50 years from now, with a potential combined launch cadence of 1,000 flights per year – over three per day – or more.

To accommodate this expected increase in launches and consequent port traffic, several proposals have been published. The leading proposal at this time is an expansion of the middle turning basin to the north, while other ideas like a dedicated wharf near LC-34 and an expansion of the west turning basin have also been considered. Whatever option is chosen could cost up to two billion dollars to complete.

A rendering of the near term expansion plan recommended for Port Canaveral. (Credit: Space Florida)

The first phase of this expansion will not disrupt the 401 highway going through the port, but a later phase of the middle turning basin expansion to the north would require relocation of the 401, a new channel being cut, and a new wharf built. The middle turning basin expansion to the west would also require a new channel and a relocation of the road, while a wharf near LC-34 would face issues with the environmental conservation of the area.

While launches and spacecraft gather most of the attention surrounding space exploration, the daily work on facilities as well as their constant maintenance and upgrading is what keeps the flights going and the spacecraft ready to fly. The launch facilities, processing facilities, factories, and port facilities at “the spaceport that never sleeps” will continue to be upgraded as new launch vehicles come online in the coming years and decades.

(Lead image: SLC-40 with a Falcon 9 and the SpaceX payload processing facility. Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF/L2)

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