Tuesday, June 21, 2022

SpaceX Eyeing Another Launch Pad on the Kennedy Space Center

The people at SpaceX are quick to start down a road to a desired goal, be it launch facilities or the vehicles they launch.  A consequence of that is instead of analyzing for long periods to be absolutely sure they don't waste time, they end up re-doing things, and they're very fast at fixing things and moving ahead.  

NASA raised a concern recently that started making it to the top of the "are we sure we're doing this right?" stack of questions; is the Starship Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) that they're building alongside Pad 39A too close to the pad?  In particular, if a Starship should do something undesirable, like blow up on the pad or just above it, will it destroy the infrastructure they need to launch Crew Dragon spacecraft?  That would leave NASA in the position of having no way to get crews to and from the space station.  Due to these concerns, NASA and SpaceX have started considering options to handle that risk.   

There's more at stake than crew missions to the station, though.  Pad 39A is the only pad in the world that handles the Falcon Heavy, which is emerging as a premier heavy lift vehicle for NASA and the US military.  Yesterday, I mentioned the Falcon Heavy will be lifting the Lunar Gateway to its desired orbit, and I've previously posted about it being the launch vehicle for the Europa Clipper mission (2024 schedule).  Both of those are farther out in time, but there are five Falcon Heavy missions slated for the next year.  They would have started already except for payload delays holding up the missions.  

The most recent picture I can get of the OLM area at Pad 39A is in a video from NASASpaceflight (.com).  This is a screen grab of a shot that shows the launch tower on the left foreground and the six steel tubes (circled) that are the base of the OLM.  The concrete structure to the left and in front of the six tubes is the base of the Orbital Launch Integration Tower that will be built.

The new OLM will sit roughly 1000 feet (~300m) East of Pad 39A’s existing Falcon 9 launch facilities. It's also around 1600 feet (~500m) northeast of Pad 39A’s lone horizontal integration hangar.

The most direct solution would be to add the facilities to their other launch pad, SLC-40, if that could be done without taking it out of operation, and that's being studied. 

In response to NASA’s concern, NASA executive Kathy Lueders – in an interview with Reuters – says that SpaceX has begun working with the agency on plans to both “harden” Pad 39A and modify its Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) LC-40 pad to support Dragon launches. According to Reuters, however, receiving approval to put those plans into action “could take months.” Depending on how significant the facilities LC-40 would need are, there’s also a chance that SpaceX would need to complete a new FAA environmental review to construct a crew access tower.

An extreme alternative would be to lease or buy another unused pad on the Cape Canaveral Space Force Base side.  If any are available.  

In the big picture sense, these things need to be addressed but they're not urgent to the point of "drop everything else and fix this."  The Pad 39A Starship Orbital Launch Mount won't be ready to launch Starships for the next six to 12 months, depending on the progress at Boca Chica and if the first launches reveal needed changes as well.  


  1. Well, SpaceX has lots of hard data on the blast radius and damage caused by a fully loaded Starship prototype exploding or landing in pieces, so I would say that they know what the danger range is. Of course, that's all based on a 3 engine Starship fueled for 15km hops, sooo...

    Then there's the whole launch tempo. Starting out slow with 4-6 per year and rapidly coming online with one a week then one a day then one every 3 hours.

    So, yes, they'll need many more launch platforms. Now the tower crew are in slow production mode. Just as with Starship and Booster, the tower crews will eventually be in fast-production mode. I can see where they either learn to build quickly on-site or go into quick assembly of segments and ship them wherever they want to. After all, the port is right there.

    And they did the hard work on the tower at Boca Chica. Now it

  2. Yes Space X launches are spectacular and seem to be effortless, but what you don't see is the little working gerbils madly turning the wheels that make those launches look so easy.

    1. Oh, I'm very aware of that and I'd love to let those guys know how much we admire them. They're doing things nobody has ever done before and making it look routine.

      Several friends and my wife worked on the Cape before SpaceX. They worked on Atlases, Deltas, the Space Shuttle, and stuff I can't think of.

  3. Love the way that SpaceX has an idea and pushes. Good times.

  4. Soooooo... governmental red tape in a swamp is hindering the commercial progress of a company doing what the government itself hasn't been able to do for a decade, and doing it better.

    This is my shocked face.

  5. I have seen something, either here or elsewhere, that SpaceX is eyeing expanding Starship launch pads north of 39A where NASA had planned to put future launch pads. With all the hubbub (generally from environmental Luddites) of trying to establish new launch sites (i.e. Boca Chica) they need to expand in Florida. Hopefully, SpaceX won't get mired in The Swamp over more Dragon launch pads, since they are critical to this nation. This same goes as Aesop points out to the development of all commercial launch sites. The problem there is that D.C. is captured by people that don't want progress, just power.

    1. I remember seeing the story about them developing a new pad north of 39B, too. (search, rummage, rummage)

      Found it. The proposed launch site is called Launch Complex 49 and the map at the bottom of that post shows it north and west (inland) from 39B. There's an area called "Future National Horizontal Launch Area" just north of there and shown extending almost all the way to the beach.

      “LC-49 has been a part of Kennedy’s master plan for several years,” said Tom Engler, Kennedy’s director of Center Planning and Development. “The Notice of Availability was updated in 2014.”

  6. I'm probably being overly simplistic, but I'd consider the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula to build new launching facilities. NASA can ship in their cargo, or perhaps fly it into an airport located on site. Apply appropriate grease to the appropriate Mexican palms to keep things safe and unmolested.

    I say this because one day soon, Musk is going to need a bolthole. He's already got the wrong people on edge with his likely purchase of Twitter, and his rockets are all evil, ozone depleting monstrosities that should be banned for the good of the planet. Tesla will be investigated and broken up because reasons.

    And I want my grandkids to be able to emigrate to Mars.

    1. There are many reasons to need launch site diversity, right now almost all space launches come from 3 countries and 4 launch sites (1 Chinese, 1 French, and 2 US). 3 of those sites are coastal, 2 are equatorial...
      Storms, politicians, terrorists, environmentalists, etc are the top of a long list of potential threats.

  7. I seem to remember that where was to be a 39c pad built back during the Apollo program but was cancelled as unneeded