SpaceX’s orbit-ready Crew Dragon nears first trip out to Pad 39A atop Falcon 9

The DM-1 Crew Dragon shows off its elegant conformal solar array, featuring curved solar cells with no mechanical deployment mechanism. (SpaceX)

Now primarily reserved for launches involving the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX has begun touching up its Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) pad with new paint and hardware in anticipation of the first orbital launch of Crew Dragon, set to occur as early as the evening of January 17th.

A little over three weeks away from the milestone mission’s launch, SpaceX has – even more importantly – rolled Pad 39A’s transporter/erector (T/E) into an on-site hangar, where Falcon 9 B1051 and Crew Dragon C201 are awaiting final integration and fit checks prior to a series of careful dress rehearsals including a dry (mission) rehearsal, a wet rehearsal (WDR), and an on-pad static fire.

Over the past month or two, SpaceX’s Florida pad technicians have gradually begun a number of small but important modifications to Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A, Pad 39A), primarily focused on what is known as its Fixed Service Structure (FSS), a tall and rectangular tower off to the side of SpaceX’s launch mount. Notably, SpaceX has completed the demolition and removal of all extraneous Pad 39A structures related to its decades of service under the Space Shuttle program and has further modified the FSS to allow for the installation of Crew Dragon’s Crew Access Arm (CAA), completed earlier in 2018.

With those major tasks complete, SpaceX workers have since subtly modified the pad’s transporter/erector (T/E) for Crew Dragon and begun to both paint and clad the tower, both designed to minimize wear and tear from regular launch operations and coastal Florida’s omnipresent sea breeze. Captured in photos from the November 2018 launch of Es’hail-2, the tower cladding appears to be made of double-layered sheets of half-opaque black plastic, while the paint of choice is gray (and black accents) to mesh with the tower’s minimalist arm.

Given CEO Elon Musk’s well-known preference that his companies, products, and facilities look “beautiful”, this is almost certainly being done on his whim, albeit for the best. A coat of paint and minimalist arm design are probably cost a minimal amount of money and effort, but the bare minimum still easily sets SpaceX’s facilities apart from competitors like ULA and even NASA.


Crew Dragon closes in on orbital launches

For perhaps the first in the history of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), SpaceX revealed earlier this month that all the major hardware components needed for the first orbital launch of Crew Dragon were under one literal roof at the company’s Pad 39A launch complex. In the weeks and months prior, both Musk and COO/President Gwynne Shotwell stated rather explicitly that that hardware would indeed be physically ready to launch no later than the end of 2018, even suggesting that SpaceX engineers and technicians would attempt to conduct a dry (propellant-less) Mission Dress Rehearsal (MDR) to ensure everything fits together in late December.

As of last week, 39A’s T/E disappeared from its launch mount, indicating that the pad crew had rolled the massive apparatus into the complex’s integration hangar, where the above Falcon 9(s) and Demo-1 Crew Dragon were stashed as of December 18th. Having spent a solid five days in the hangar, SpaceX technicians have likely begun or even completed the integration of Falcon 9 B1051 and Crew Dragon and proceeded to integrate that full rocket/spacecraft combo to the T/E. As such, the T/E could very well roll out of its hangar with Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon attached at almost any moment between now and 2019.

If all goes as planned and NASA and SpaceX can wrap up paperwork (certification, approvals, etc) in the next week or two, SpaceX could launch an uncrewed Crew Dragon into orbit as early as the evening of January 17th. The rocket’s rollout will be the be the next major milestone so stay tuned!

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SpaceX’s orbit-ready Crew Dragon nears first trip out to Pad 39A atop Falcon 9
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