SpaceX readies rocket for tests at historic pad 39A

An aerial view of launch pad 39A from late 2015. Credit: NASA

SpaceX engineers are preparing to mount a Falcon 9 rocket at Kennedy Space Center’s historic launch pad 39A for the first time this week as the company declares the modified facility ready to support a new era of commercial space missions.

The two-stage rocket, without its payload, could roll out of SpaceX’s hangar at the southern perimeter of pad 39A and up the ramp to the launch mount as soon as Thursday.

SpaceX aims to fill the rocket with super-chilled kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants Friday — if everything goes according to plan — for a hotfire test of the Falcon 9’s first stage engines. The nine Merlin 1D powerplants will fire and power up to 1.7 million pounds of thrust for several seconds, sending a plume of exhaust out of pad 39A’s redesigned flame trench.

Sensors in each engine will measure many performance parameters during the brief ignition at the launch pad. Hold-down restraints will keep the rocket on the ground.

SpaceX is prepping the rocket for a launch targeted for around 10:01 a.m. EST (1501 GMT) on Feb. 18 with a Dragon cargo craft flying to the International Space Station. The commercial supply ship is slated to carry 5,266 pounds (2,389 kilograms) of equipment and experiments to the orbiting laboratory.

The crucial static fire test will double as a check of the rocket’s readiness for flight and the function of the launch pad’s fueling, telemetry and water deluge systems, all of which were overhauled by SpaceX in recent months.

Once the test is complete, ground crews will lower the rocket and attach the Dragon cargo freighter for launch next weekend.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of flight reliability, said Wednesday that testing of the new ground systems at 39A was nearly complete, allowing managers to move ahead with rollout of the rocket.

“This is a huge pad,” Koenigsmann said. “The runs from the LOX (liquid oxygen) farm and the fuel farm down to the launch head are huge. The transporter-erector is huge. It’s like one-and-a-half million pounds of steel, and (it has) so much technology because this thing controls all the interfaces (with the rocket).”

The transporter-erector will carry rockets from the hangar up the incline to the pad, then lift the vehicles vertical. The rocket carrier was observed vertical at pad 39A in the last few weeks, and on Wednesday it was seen moving back toward the hangar, where the Falcon 9 rocket sits awaiting the static fire.

“There was nothing in particular that gave us a hard time,” Koenigsmann told reporters Wednesday during the Federal Aviation Administration’s 20th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington. “It’s more like this whole thing was a huge effort, and at the end of it you want to test and test things again to make sure that they’re ready to go.”

A view of launch pad 39A, with SpaceX’s rocket erector vertical, taken on Jan. 26. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Scriptunas Images

The last time a rocket stood at pad 39A was in July 2011, when the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off on the final flight of NASA’s iconic winged spaceships. SpaceX signed a 20-year lease for the launch complex from NASA in 2014, and preparations at pad 39A took on a feverish pace last year after the company’s other launch facility at Cape Canaveral sustained major damage when a rocket exploded.

SpaceX resumed launches Jan. 14 with a successful Falcon 9 mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but the company’s return-to-flight in Florida has been paced by the construction at pad 39A.

NASA launched 12 Saturn 5 rockets from pad 39A during the Apollo moon program — including Apollo 11 — and 82 shuttle flights departed from the seaside launch complex.

But NASA decided it no longer needed pad 39A after the shuttle’s retirement. Nearby launch pad 39B, previously built for Apollo and shuttle flights, will be home to NASA’s Space Launch System, a government-owned heavy-lift rocket that will launch astronaut crews on deep space expeditions.

The concrete foundation of pad 39A dates back to the Apollo era of the 1960s, while the 347-foot-tall (106-meter) fixed service structure and lightning tower were emplaced before the first shuttle launch.

“It gives me a little bit of chills when I walk out there and see stuff that’s left over from Apollo,” Koenigsmann said.

Since SpaceX took over, changes to pad 39A have included the construction of the new rocket hangar outside the south gate to the facility, where space shuttles and Saturn 5 moon rockets arrived on top of tracked crawler-transporters after rollout from the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building.

The hangar can accommodate five Falcon 9 rocket cores at a time, according to SpaceX.

File photo of three recovered Falcon 9 first stage boosters inside the hangar at pad 39A last year. Credit: SpaceX

Other additions include the installation of RP-1 kerosene fuel tanks and the construction of the massive transporter-erector, which is sized to accommodate SpaceX’s powerful triple-body Falcon Heavy rocket when it debuts later this year.

“The transporter-erector is big enough to do Falcon Heavy. We can launch Falcon 9 with it in the center, of course, but the Falcon Heavy drives the size of it,” Koenigsmann said. “You can see … It’s bigger than the one we used to have.”

The facility’s water system has also been refurbished to provide acoustic and heat protection to the pad deck during liftoffs, and the water tower at the northeast perimeter of the pad has been repainted, now emblazoned with the SpaceX logo.

Later this year, SpaceX plans to add an access arm to pad 39A’s fixed service structure for astronaut crews to board a human-rated version of the Dragon spacecraft beginning in 2018. SpaceX and Boeing have contracts with NASA to develop commercial spaceships to rotate crews between Earth and the space station.

SpaceX officials intend to base crewed launches and Falcon Heavy missions from pad 39A, and flights for the U.S. military and some commercial missions will be launched from pad 40 a few miles to the south.

Pad 40, which lies on U.S. Air Force property, should be ready for launches again in a few months after ground teams finish clean-up and repairs following the catastrophic explosion of a Falcon 9 booster there in September.

The rocket was destroyed during the final countdown before a static fire test Sept. 1, along with an Israeli-owned communications satellite.

SpaceX said the construction crew working at pad 39A will move over to pad 40 in the coming weeks. A firm timetable for pad 40’s availability for launches will be better known once repairs begin, but the facility could be ready by the middle of the year, officials said.

SpaceX aims to launch once every two weeks after pad 39A is inaugurated later this month, continuing with the deployment of an EchoStar communications satellite in early March, then the launch of an SES telecom payload aboard a previously-flown first stage booster later in March.

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