SpaceX’s backup Dragon launch pad on track for 2023 debut

SpaceX has begun building a backup launch pad for its Cargo and Crew Dragon spacecraft and says the facility could be ready for use as early as fall 2023.

Reuters first revealed those plans in June 2022. They came about because NASA reportedly told SpaceX that it was concerned that the company’s first Florida Starship launch site, located on the only platform that can currently launch the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, could add too much risk. In September 2022, NASA and SpaceX acknowledge plans to modify the LC-40 for Dragon launches and indicated that both parties had decided to proceed.

Four months later, SpaceX and NASA have provided another update from the press conference. The authorities confirmed that the construction is already partially underway and reported that LC-40 could be ready to support its first Dragon launch in less than a year.

With Boeing’s comparable Starliner capsule years behind schedule and not yet qualified to launch humans, NASA has relied almost exclusively on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to launch its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) since 2020. should be ready to complement Crew Dragon’s operative astronaut. launches in late 2023 or early 2024, relieving some of that pressure.

NASA, however, chose to develop two spacecraft to ensure that one spacecraft would likely be available if the other was on the ground for some reason. Adding the possibility that a new giant experimental rocket (Starship) could potentially stop all SpaceX Dragon launches in one fell swoop was apparently too much of a bridge for the agency.

LC-40 has supported 9 launches in the last 8 weeks. (Richard Angle)

SpaceX’s answer to the problem was as simple, elegant, and cheap as possible. The company has two operational Falcon launch pads in Florida and has proposed modifying the second pad. SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) LC-40 platform is located on a secure military base and has an even longer history of successful Falcon 9 launches than platform 39A. It also appears that its design will allow SpaceX to add a Dragon access tower without requiring major redesigns or months of downtime.

LC-40 is by far SpaceX’s most productive launch pad, and the company intends to throw up to 100 times in 2023. So it’s crucial that the pad stay as active as possible as it gets modified, a big challenge. A combination of luck and the fact that the launchpad is already operational is the only reason it’s possible.

Modifying SpaceX’s busiest platform

In theory, SpaceX needs to do relatively little to enable Dragon launches from LC-40. Dragon spacecraft are processed for flight in a separate facility and only head to the pad once they’re ready to dock with a Falcon 9 rocket. The biggest modification the LC-40 needs is a launch tower, but SpaceX ironically, he has experience building giant towers in sections – and off-site – via Starship.

The LC-40 Dragon access tower requires much less complex plumbing and should be smaller and easier to prefabricate and assemble. Regulatory documents indicate the new tower will stand 81 meters (265 feet) tall, nearly a third shorter than the 110-meter-tall tower that SpaceX modified on Pad 39A for the same purpose. LC-40 will also need a access swing arm to connect the tower to the Dragon’s hatch. That arm can also be built off-site, further reducing the amount of downtime required.

The top half of the LC-40 T/E seen here is clearly connected by removable bolts, likely making the process of modifying the deck to support Dragon launches much less disruptive than it could have been. (Richard Angle)

The most disruptive modifications may involve the LC-40’s transporter/erector (T/E) device, which rolls the Falcon 9 onto the platform, lifts it vertically, and secures it with giant clamps; and houses a maze of pipes that fuels, pressurizes, and powers the rocket. The top of the LC-40 T/E is fitted with a brace designed to support the Falcon’s payload fairings. By comparison, the 39A T/E was designed with interchangeable ‘heads’ that allow SpaceX to switch between Dragon and fairing configurations in a matter of days. The top of the LC-40 T/E also appears to be somewhat removable, but SpaceX may still have to halt launches for a few weeks to get the T/E up to spec and modified for Dragon.

SpaceX says that LC-40 will be ready to support its first Dragon launch beginning in the fall (Q4) of 2023. Its first Dragon mission will transport cargo to the ISS, meaning the tower, boom, and pad won’t have to be immediately classified by humans. In theory, SpaceX could even launch Cargo Dragon 2 from LC-40 without a tower or boom, since the sole purpose of the tower during uncrewed missions is to load volatile charge at the last possible second. SpaceX could even go back to a practice dating back to its original Dragon 1 spacecraft and come up with a method to load cargo late while Falcon 9 and Dragon are still horizontal.

Starship is nine times heavier and nearly twice as tall as Falcon 9. (SpaceX)

The tower and access arm are only essential for Crew Dragon launches, during which astronauts must board the spacecraft a few hours before liftoff. More importantly, the same boom and turret would be used to escape Dragon and Falcon 9 in the event of a minor emergency. An escape (egress) system is required by NASA to humanely qualify a launch pad and rocket. SpaceX met that requirement on Pad 39A with a slidewire basket system which carries astronauts to a concrete bunker several hundred feet away from the rocket. Before the LC-40 can be classified by humans, SpaceX will likely need to build the same basket and bunker system or find a viable alternative.

Upon completion, SpaceX will have two platforms capable of supporting all Crew and Cargo Dragon launches. With that redundancy in place, NASA should be much more open to regular launches of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket from Pad 39A. Access to multiple platforms will likely be essential for Starship to complete NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contracts, culminating in the giant rocket. send humans back to the moon For him first (and second) time in half a century in the mid to late 2020s.

SpaceX’s backup Dragon launch pad on track for 2023 debut

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