Cape Canaveral welcomes new Falcon 9 rocket family
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: April 29, 2007
Air Force Space Command has granted an initial five-year license for SpaceX to use Space Launch Complex 40 on the northside of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The pad dates back to the 1960s as a site for Titan rockets. Most recently, the complex was the East Coast home of the now-retired Titan 4 rocket.
Complex 40 saw its final Titan fly in April 2005. Since then, Lockheed Martin and the Air Force have worked through environmental cleanup, salvaging of usable equipment and demolition of some structures. All the while, the pad has been eyed for possible future use by NASA's new exploration rockets or commercial companies like SpaceX.
Elon Musk, the millionaire who created SpaceX with the fortune he made as co-founder of PayPal, the online payment system, and the earlier Zip2 software company, says this deal to build the pad at the Cape is necessary to allow his rockets to compete for Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office and NASA launches.
"It was actually very important to position SpaceX to service the Air Force for EELV missions in the future, as well as the NRO, and also doing sophisticated billion-dollar missions for NASA, like planetary missions," he said in an interview last week. "So I think it's really important, strategically, for us to be able to service our U.S. government customers."
The Falcon 9 rocket family, which will have the lift capacity in line with Atlas 5 and Delta 4 boosters, features standard two-stage configurations and a triple-body Heavy version like its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle competitors.
The standard rocket will be powered by nine main engines, each generating about 100,000 pounds of thrust on liquid oxygen and highly refined kerosene propellants. The Heavy is designed to have three liquid-fueled stages strapped together, like the Delta 4-Heavy, to carry nearly 60,000 pounds of payload into orbit. Complex 40 will be modified to accommodate all Falcon 9 versions from the outset.
Also under development by SpaceX is the Dragon space capsule envisioned to ferry astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. Test flights under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program are slated to begin next year from Complex 40.
One key part of the pad certainly not staying for the Falcon era is the massive mobile service tower. SpaceX uses off-pad assembly of its rockets, then rolls them to the pad for erection and launch. Musk says the Falcon 9 would have no need for a mobile gantry like the Titan's structure. The Air Force will be taking down the tower, but a time frame has not been determined to complete the job, a Cape spokesperson said.
Officials anticipate all of the paperwork associated with SpaceX using the pad should be completed later this year.
"A real property license will take several months to prepare and coordinate. However, it cannot be signed until SpaceX completes environmental analyses and reports. SpaceX is working on these now," an Air Force spokesperson said Friday. "The environmental work usually takes longer than the preparation of a license."
"All of the paperwork elements have been underway for a few months," Musk said. "The environmental work was done essentially betting on the assumption that we would get the pad, which fortunately turned out to the true. So it accelerates our environmental approval schedule."
Once the approvals are in place, construction work can begin in earnest to prepare for the first launch. SpaceX intends to fly the maiden Falcon 9 mission from the Cape next year on a classified flight for the U.S. government.
"We're hopeful we can do the first launch next summer, although honestly we've got a lot to do between now and then. So that's our aspiration, we'll do our best to meet that goal," Musk said.
The modification work includes installing propellant tanks and plumbing, launch mounts for the rocket to stand upon and building a booster processing hangar. Whether that hangar will be located at the complex or offsite has not been decided, Musk explained.
Musk said the size of the company's work force at the Cape will be driven by the number of launches that SpaceX can add to its manifest, plus the plans to refurbish and refly the Falcon 9 stages and Dragon capsules.
"It's hugely dependent upon our launch rate, and it's going to be both the work force oriented towards the launch operations as well as refurbishment of the rocket stages and our Dragon between flights. Assuming the reusability factor, we expect to do more refurbishment than we do manufacturing original stages," Musk said.
SpaceX has a launch site on the remote island of Omelek in the Central Pacific that is part of the U.S. military's Kwajalein range. Two test flights the Falcon 1 small-satellite launcher last year and last month flew from there. Musk says Kwajalein is the backup option for Falcon 9 if the Cape plans get bogged down in paperwork.
"What we have done with Kwajalein is we've put in the environmental application as well as the program direction paperwork with the range. And we're going to continue with that just in case something holds up our ability to launch from the Cape."