SpaceX and NASA officials have confirmed that they are moving forward with plans to modify the company’s second Florida launch pad to support Crew and Cargo Dragon missions.
First reported by Reuters in June 2022, SpaceX began studying the possibility of modifying its Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) LC-40 pad for Dragon missions earlier this year after NASA raised concerns about the risks posed by plans to operate its next-generation Starship rocket out of the only pad available for Dragon. Three months later, the partners have committed to that plan and, according to SpaceX, hardware for the required modifications is already in work.
After a false-start in 2019 and 2020, SpaceX began rapidly constructing Starship’s first Florida launch site at the LC-39A pad it leases from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) earlier this year. Thanks to a series of modifications and additions to existing Space Shuttle infrastructure, Pad 39A is also the only site currently capable of launching Crew and Cargo Dragon spacecraft on Falcon 9 rockets. Located just 1000 feet (~300 m) east of 39A’s existing Falcon and Dragon launch facilities and access tower, Starship is unlikely to have much of an impact during nominal operations, but the program does have a history of building prototypes that occasionally explode.
Until late 2023 at the absolute earliest, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is the only spacecraft capable of sustaining NASA’s presence (typically 4-5 astronauts) at the International Space Station (ISS). Years behind schedule, Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is scheduled to attempt its first crewed test flight (CTF) no sooner than February 2023. Starliner’s first operational astronaut transport mission could then follow in September 2023, but it could easily slip into 2024 if the CTF is less than flawless. To date, both of Starliner’s uncrewed test flights have uncovered significant issues that required months of additional work to rectify.
When a Falcon 9 rocket exploded at LC-40 in 2016, causing damage that effectively required a total rebuild, it took SpaceX 15 months to resurrect the pad. In other words, if a Starship launch failed and destroyed Pad 39A’s Falcon and Dragon facilities at some point within the next 12-18 months, it could easily threaten NASA’s ability to maintain the ISS if Boeing was unable to take over.
Even though SpaceX would never risk launching Starship out of Pad 39A if it knew there was a high risk of the new rocket failing and harming Dragon operations, NASA is in the business of ensuring that contingencies exist in case of unlikely but catastrophic events. It doesn’t matter if Starship probably won’t explode or if Starliner will probably be ready to take over. The risk is always there and SpaceX and NASA must be ready for the possibility.
Nothing is known about the nature of the modifications that LC-40 will require. But more likely than not, NASA will require SpaceX to develop something similar to Pad 39A’s facilities. That would involve building a new crew access tower, crew access arm, escape system (39A uses baskets and ziplines), and an on-site bunker for astronauts.
Given that the need for a backup Dragon launch pad comes largely at NASA’s behest, there’s a good chance that the agency will require that that backup be in place before SpaceX will be allowed to launch Starship out of Pad 39A. Earlier this month, CEO Elon Musk delayed his estimate for the first Florida Starship launch from late 2022 to Q2 2023. It’s highly unlikely that SpaceX will be able to finish modifying LC-40 by Q2 2023.
SpaceX will have to undertake the already challenging, time-sensitive construction project on a high-security military base and well within the blast radius of the single most active launch pad in the world. Much of the custom hardware required could have significant lead times, further extending the construction timeline. Unless SpaceX is willing to seriously constrain LC-40’s launch cadence, which would likely make its goals of 60+ launches in 2022 and up to 100 Falcon launches in 2023 impossible, the work will take even longer than it would under ordinary circumstances.