SpaceX is turning oil rigs into floating Starship spaceports named after Mars’ moons

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Six months after CEO Elon Musk revealed that “SpaceX is building floating, superheavy-class spaceports” for its next-generation Starship rocket, the company has already purchased and begun converting at least two retired oil rigs.

In a rapid-fire series of investigations spurred by recent photos and suspicions published by photographer Jack Beyer, it was quickly determined that an oil rig mothballed for years in Port of Brownsville and a twin ship in nearby Galveston were purchased by “an undisclosed buyer” for ~$7 million in July 2020. Weeks later, owner Valaris (formerly EnscoRowan) officially filed for bankruptcy, explaining the sale of multiple half-billion-dollar assets for scrap prices.

An offshore drilling contractor and owner of one the largest fleets of oil and gas drilling rigs in the world, ENSCO built seven 8500-series deep-water, semi-submersible oil rigs in the late 2000s and early 2010s. ENSCO 8506, the last in the series, was built for an incredible $560 million from 2008 to 2012. Thanks to the crashing oil and gas market, SpaceX is now the proud owner of 8500 and 8501 – the first two ships in the series – for a mere $7 million.

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It was quickly determined by NASASpaceflight reporter Michael Baylor that shell company Lone Star Mineral Development purchased the rigs. In the tweet’s replies, another user discovered that the LLC was directly connected to SpaceX CFO Bret Johnsen, indisputably confirming that SpaceX was the new owner of both oil rigs.

In its first act as owner, SpaceX fittingly renamed the rigs Deimos (8500) and Phobos (8501). While subverting the SpaceX norm of naming rocket landing platforms after starships from science fiction author Iain Banks’ Culture universe, the moons of Mars are a more than fitting alternative given the company’s intense focus on building a sustainable city on the planet.

Measuring just 15 miles in diameter, Phobos is pictured on the edge of Mars’ limb in 2007. (ESA/Mars Express)
Starship’s primary purpose is to enable the sustainable human exploration and settlement of Mars. (SpaceX)

The purpose of the newest additions to SpaceX’s fleet is both simple and unclear. While the company is currently hard at work building out a land-based launch complex for orbital Starship-Super Heavy launches, vast floating launch and landing platforms have also featured in SpaceX’s official artist concepts of the rocket for the last several years. At first centered on enabling suborbital airline-style Starship flights to and from coastal cities, where sea-based platforms would be a necessity to avoid domestic regulations and extreme noise pollution, Musk ultimately positioned sea-launch as a viable alternative or complement to any and all land-based Starship launch operations.

Most recently, in June 2020, the CEO stated that SpaceX “is building floating, superheavy-class spaceports for Mars, Moon, & hypersonic travel around Earth.” Now, with work already clearly underway to convert at least two oil rigs into Starship launch and landing platforms, that concept is far closer to reality. It remains to be seen how extensive (and thus expensive) the changes SpaceX needs to make to the platforms will be but it’s safe to say that the venture is a whole lot more plausible when a dying industry’s asset depreciation is so intense that a billion dollars worth of oil rig hardware can be bought for a mere $7 million just a decade after completion.

SpaceX is turning oil rigs into floating Starship spaceports named after Mars’ moons

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