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 arose because NASA reportedly told SpaceX it was worried that the company’s first Florida Starship launch site – colocated at the only pad currently able to launch SpaceX Dragon spacecraft – could add too much risk. In September 2022, NASA and SpaceX acknowledged plans to modify LC-40 for Dragon launches and indicated that both parties had decided to proceed.
Four months later, SpaceX and NASA have provided another press conference update. Officials confirmed that construction is already partially underway and reported that LC-40 could be ready to support its first Dragon launch less than a year from now.
Because Boeing’s comparable Starliner capsule is years behind schedule and still unqualified 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. Starliner should be ready to supplement Crew Dragon’s operational astronaut launches by the end of 2023 or early 2024, alleviating some of that pressure.
NASA, however, chose to develop two spacecraft to guarantee that one spacecraft would likely be available if the other was grounded for any reason. Adding the possibility that a giant, new, experimental rocket (Starship) could potentially halt all SpaceX Dragon launches in one fell swoop was apparently one bridge too many for the agency.
SpaceX’s answer to the problem was about as simple, elegant, and cheap as possible. The company has two operational Falcon launch pads in Florida, and it proposed to modify the second pad. SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) LC-40 pad is located on a secure military base and has an even longer history of successful Falcon 9 launches than Pad 39A. It also appears that its layout will allow SpaceX to add a Dragon access tower without requiring major redesigns or months of downtime.
LC-40 is SpaceX’s most productive launch pad by far, and the company intends to launch up to 100 times in 2023. It’s thus crucial that the pad remains as active as possible as it’s modified – a major challenge. A combination of luck and the fact that the launch pad is already operational is the only reason that’s possible.
Modifying SpaceX’s busiest pad
In theory, SpaceX needs to do relatively little to enable Dragon launches out of LC-40. Dragon spacecraft are processed for flight at a separate facility and only head to the pad once they’re ready to be attached to a Falcon 9 rocket. The biggest modification LC-40 needs is a launch tower, but SpaceX ironically has experience building giant towers in sections – and offsite – through Starship.
LC-40’s Dragon access tower requires far less complex plumbing and should be smaller and easier to prefabricate and assemble. Regulatory documents indicate that the new tower will stand 81 meters (265 feet) tall – almost a third shorter than the 110-meter-tall tower SpaceX modified at Pad 39A for the same purpose. LC-40 will also need a swinging access arm to connect the tower to Dragon’s hatch. That arm can also be constructed offsite, further reducing the amount of downtime required.
The most disruptive modifications may involve LC-40’s transporter/erector (T/E) device, which rolls Falcon 9 out to the pad, raises it vertical, holds it down with giant clamps; and hosts a maze of plumbing that fuels, pressurizes, and powers the rocket. The top of LC-40’s T/E is fitted with a brace designed to support Falcon payload fairings. In comparison, 39A’s T/E was designed with swappable ‘heads’ that allow SpaceX to switch between Dragon and fairing configurations in a matter of days. The top of LC-40’s 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 as early as fall (Q4) 2023. Its first Dragon mission will carry cargo to the ISS, meaning that the tower, arm, and pad will not need to be immediately human-rated. In theory, SpaceX could even launch Cargo Dragon 2 from LC-40 without a tower or arm, as the only purpose of the tower during uncrewed missions is to load volatile cargo at the last possible second. SpaceX could even revert to a practice that dates back to its original Dragon 1 spacecraft and devise a method to late-load cargo while Falcon 9 and Dragon are still horizontal.
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 arm and tower would be used to escape Dragon and Falcon 9 in case of a minor emergency. NASA requires an escape (egress) system to human-rate a launch pad and rocket. SpaceX met that requirement at Pad 39A with a “slidewire basket” system that carries astronauts to a concrete bunker several hundred feet away from the rocket. Before LC-40 can be human-rated, SpaceX will likely need to build the same basket-and-bunker system or come up with a viable alternative.
Once complete, SpaceX will have two pads capable of supporting all Crew and Cargo Dragon launches. With that redundancy in place, NASA should be far more open to regular launches of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket out of Pad 39A. Access to multiple pads will likely be essential for Starship to complete NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contracts, which will culminate in the giant rocket sending humans back to the Moon for the first (and second) time in half a century in the mid-to-late-2020s.