SpaceX is moving ahead with plans to upgrade a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, which will serve as a backup to the Kennedy Space Center pad the company currently uses to launch cargo and crews to space.
During a press briefing last week, Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president for build and flight reliability, said that the company is preparing for the upgrades needed for Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) to prepare it for upcoming cargo and crew launches, Space News reported. SpaceX is currently under a commercial crew contract with NASA to shuttle crew and cargo to the International Space Station with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft.
“We’ve already started the work to begin the preparations for pad 40. We’ve ordered some hardware, put some contracts into place,” Gerstenmaier said during the briefing. At first, the company will only launch cargo missions from SLC-40, but it plans to add crew missions later. “It gives us some flexibility to move some things off 39A, which helps us balance launches off both pads,” Gerstenmaier added.
SLC-40 has been under lease to SpaceX from the United States Air Force since 2007; the Air Force previously used the launch pad at Cape Canaveral to launch its Titan III and IV rockets, which it did from 1965 to 2005. SpaceX is leasing Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and it uses the facility to launch crew and cargo missions to the ISS. The private space company is also working towards the inaugural launch of its super heavy-lift Starship rocket from its launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas, with company CEO Elon Musk recently claiming that it could fly as early as November.
The company eventually plans to launch the megarocket from Kennedy Space Center. NASA selected Starship to land humans on the Moon by late 2025 as part of the space agency’s Artemis 3 mission. To that end, SpaceX is building a massive Starship launch tower a few hundred feet away from pad 39A’s launch tower. The massive 1,000-foot-tall (300-meter) launch tower is nearing completion, with its sixth and seventh sections added this summer. But the thought of having Starship anywhere near pad 39A is apparently making NASA a bit nervous, particularly when it comes to SpaceX’s ongoing commercial crew obligations.
For you see, SpaceX has a history of its prototype rockets exploding on the pad. In 2016, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded on its Cape Canaveral launch pad, resulting in significant damage that took more than a year to repair. Other shenanigans at the launch pad include an eight second static fire test of a Starship prototype that ended in a brush fire, in an incident from last month.
As Reuters reported in June, NASA officials told SpaceX that a Starship explosion near LC-39A could cut off the space agency’s only means of launching astronauts to the ISS, hence its desire for a backup launch pad. Accordingly, SpaceX will upgrade the pad at Cape Canaveral, but Gerstenmaier says the company won’t bring Starship to Kennedy until it’s ready for prime time. Starship is currently undergoing tests in Boca Chica in advance of the megarocket’s first orbital test. “Our intent is to bring Starship to 39A after we have a reliable vehicle. We’ll do a series of tests in Boca [Chica] to makes sure the vehicle is ready to go. When we think we have a good and reliable vehicle, we’ll bring it to 39A,” Gerstenmaier said during the briefing.
Starship is a fully reusable, super heavy-lift launch vehicle designed to carry supplies and passengers to Earth orbit, the Moon, and possibly even further destinations like Mars. That’s all fine and well, but NASA is probably right to be a bit wary about having this rocket on its property.