SpaceX has confirmed it is now into the construction phase of converting Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A for its Falcon Heavy debut, with a large amount of work now taking place to build a new vehicle facility at the complex. The former Apollo and Space Shuttle pad is being re-purposed to host the maiden flight of SpaceX’s new rocket, set to launch as early as next summer.
Pad 39A – From Shuttle to Falcon Heavy:
SpaceX is reinvigorating the historic pad complex that fell silent after Atlantis and her crew successfully launched on the Shuttle’s swansong mission, STS-135, in 2011.
Now, KSC’s two launch pads are quickly becoming the flag bearers for the spaceport’s new “multi-user” brief, with Launch Complex 39B converted into a “clean pad” to host NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).
While that work took place, 39A was mothballed, providing one of the last few visible signs of KSC’s Shuttle past as the center began its “21st Century Spaceport” transition process.
A deal between NASA and Space Florida – the State’s aerospace economic development agency – failed to materialize in 2012, and NASA subsequently issued a Request For Proposals (RFP) from the commercial sector the following year regarding how they would make use of the Center’s various resources.
Several suitors cited interest in the pad, including the United Launch Alliance (ULA), who were “interested in the possibility in launching Atlas or Delta from LC-39 (and) participated in the KSC-led studies looking at options,” according Dr. George Sowers, ULA VP for Human Launch Services, speaking to NASASpaceFlight.com in 2013.
By the end of 2013, NASA selected SpaceX to begin negotiations on a lease to use and operate pad 39A. The negotiations ended in April of 2014 with SpaceX and NASA announcing that a 20 year lease had been finalized.
During the announcement, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell recognized the historic past of 39A – a pad that hosted 92 launches, including Apollo 11 and STS-1 – but also spoke of the future.
Should SpaceX’s busy launch schedule allow, 39A will debut another launch vehicle next summer, namely the maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
The Falcon Heavy (FH) is a variant of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, utilizing a core stage with two additional F9 v1.1 first stages on either side. A total of 27 Merlin 1Ds engines will loft the rocket off the pad.
SpaceX claims that the FH sports the ability to lift over 53 metric tons (117,000 lb) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO): more than twice the payload capacity (and one-third the cost) of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy.
While the FH will have a West Coast home at Vandenberg Air Force Base’s SLC-4E, its debut launch is on track to occur out of KSC.
Preparations for the launch are now in full swing, with construction work visible at 39A – as seen in photos acquired by L2.
Most of the current work appears to be taking place on the perimeter area of the pad, with the construction of a vehicle building – known as the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) – that will house the Falcon Heavy rocket and associated hardware and payloads during processing.
During rollout, the Falcon Heavy will be transported atop the Transporter Erector (TE), which will ride on rails, up the famous 39A ramp that once saw Space Shuttle and Apollo stacks arrive via the Crawler Transporters.
“Conversion of the pad has actually been underway for some time now. Falcon Heavy will be housed in a facility and transported on rails to the pad, similar to the setup we currently have at SLC-40,” noted SpaceX spokesman John Taylor to NASASpaceFlight.com.
However, while this work is taking place to modify pad 39A’s surroundings, the pad’s general appearance will remain unchanged for the debut launch of the Falcon Heavy.
In fact, pad 39A is set to keep its familiar appearance from the Shuttle era during the maiden launch operations of the Falcon Heavy.
It was originally thought that 39A’s shuttle specific Rotating Service Structure (RSS) – which was a key element of payload installation and pad flow processing tasks for Shuttle, but isn’t required for Falcon Heavy – would be removed, before adding more levels to the existing Fixed Service Structure (FSS).
However, SpaceX has now confirmed the RSS will remain for the interim.
“SpaceX is planning to keep the Rotating Service Structure for the time being,” added Mr. Taylor. “No additional levels will be added to the Fixed Service Structure although we will make some structural reinforcements.”
This confirmed plan should aid the schedule for completing the work that will allow Falcon Heavy to debut in the summer of 2015.
Understandably, the company is not citing any schedule dates relating to Falcon Heavy’s arrival in Florida.
However, it is understood that a preliminary date of July 1, 2015 has been seen on KSC schedules for the Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) of the Falcon Heavy at 39A.
As with all long term schedules, such a date is subject to change.
The hardware flow will include production at SpaceX’s Hawthorne factory, shipping to the company’s facility in McGregor, Texas for testing – prior to making the journey to Florida.
The WDR will be a key milestone for the Falcon Heavy and 39A, ensuring that the pad’s fueling systems – and the launch vehicle – function properly in a fully operational environment.
Providing the WDR proves to be successful and shows that no additional work is needed before FH’s maiden launch, a Static Fire (or Hot Fire) test, prior to a Launch Readiness Review (LRR), will be undertaken by SpaceX to ultimately provide the green light to proceed to launch day.
This first launch, which does not have a confirmed launch date other than mid-2015, will be a demo flight.
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Falcon Heavy Payloads and Stage Reuse:
Notably, SpaceX already has a number of payloads set to ride on the FH, ranging from an undesignated Intelsat mission to GTO, an unconfirmed ViaSat-2 launch and an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class mission for the United States Air Force called STP-2 (Space Test Program -2).
Ultimately, next year should mark the beginning of a tag-team effort between the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 v1.1.
When Falcon Heavy was first announced, Elon Musk envisioned SpaceX ramping up production to 400 engines and over 40 cores per year – with the aim of eventually achieving 20 launches per year between the two rocket systems.
This demand may soon be aided by the ongoing successes relating to SpaceX’s aspiration to return core stages back to Earth for reuse, with the next launch of the Falcon 9 v1.1 – tasked with lofting the CRS-5/SpX-5 Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS) in December – aiming to return the core stage to a platform in the Atlantic Ocean ahead of attempts to return a core to terra firma.
Falcon Heavy’s three first stages are also expected to sport landing legs, along with an ambition to return back to land once they’ve completing their primary role of pushing the second stage and payload passenger uphill.
(Images: via L2’s SpaceX Section, including renderings created by L2 Artists Nathan Koga and Jdeshetler – Click here for full resolution F9, F9-R, FH and BFR renderings and more – these are not official SpaceX images. Other images from NASA.gov)
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