For the past several years, the historic launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, have undergone sweeping changes as the conclusion of the Space Shuttle program brought a new vision to the spaceport. Those changes have now spread across the lagoon to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where pad modifications are underway for various commercial space access operations.
KSC pad LC-39B: Multiuser strategy
The Kennedy Space Center has fully transitioned away from its role as the home of the Space Shuttle fleet.
The multi-year process, while painful for some and at the same time exciting, has seen the Kennedy Space Center grow from a single user access point into a true multiuser facility, with processing capabilities for SLS, Orion, CST-100 Starliner, SpaceX’s Falcon rocket variants, and a potential host of small-class rockets.
In fact, KSC is now very much in a position to provide a home base for a number of commercial launch companies and the eventual crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s.
While most of this work has gone on behind the scenes so to speak, with extensive reconfigurations and refurbishments of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), former OPF-3, and the Operations and Checkout building, the bulk of the visible work to the public has taken place at the two historic launch pads, LC-39A and LC-39B.
While work continues at pad 39B to upgrade the pad structures to withstand the thrust force expected during an SLS launch, significant work has already taken place at the complex, with the pad being rendered a clean pad like it was in the Apollo era and with significant upgrades to the flame trench system.
These upgrades followed significant rewiring and electronics upgrades to 39B in the form of modern, 21st-century communications equipment to enhance controllers’ awareness of the launch vehicle.
As of September 2015 KSC construction updates, available for download on L2, “There is continued construction traffic inside and around Launch Pad 39B in support of various ongoing construction projects.
“These projects include the modification of the ignition overpressure/sound suppression system, the replacement of heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, the replacement of the vehicle environmental control system, modifications to the flame trench, and construction of a new main flame deflector.”
However, it is not just the SLS rocket that NASA hopes will one day grace pad 39B. The agency also hopes to provide a small class launcher facility from the LC-39B grounds.
According to KSC construction documentation, work on this facility at Pad B was completed in June 2015 following six months of construction operations.
LC-39A: SpaceX prepares for Falcon Heavy and crewed Dragon missions
However, the most significant recent work to pad structures has taken place on two adjacent launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, one of them being LC-39A at Kennedy.
Significant alterations to the immediate area surrounding the launch pad this year have seen the rise of a brand new SpaceX hanger straddling what used to be the crawler way beyond the perimeter fence of LC-39A.
The new hanger for SpaceX will be the prime location where the company integrates components for its upcoming Falcon Heavy rocket as well as the smaller Falcon 9 to support the company’s human missions to the International Space Station and potential other destinations within the solar system.
Other significant work SpaceX has conducted at LC-39A is the continued introduction of a new transportation system up the gentle slope of 39A to support the horizontal transportation of the Falcon variant rockets to the pad’s launch surface and subsequent orientation to a vertical launch position.
Notably, much of the historic launch tower that supported the Space Shuttle program from Enterprise in 1979 to Atlantis in 2011 will remain in place for the interim, with modifications to support the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 v1.1 rockets for both non-human and human missions.
Significant to SpaceX and LC-39A was the announcement on 1 July 2015 that SpaceX was delaying its in-flight abort test of the Dragon capsule from 2015 until after the planned late 2016 orbital test flight of the uncrewed Dragon V2 crew capsule (Or “Dragon 2” as she is now referred to).
Delay of that in-flight abort test followed consultation with NASA and a decision to use the uncrewed orbital test flight Dragon V2 capsule as the in-flight abort test vehicle instead of the pad abort Dragon mock up from earlier in 2015.
SpaceX had intended to use the pad abort Dragon for the in-flight abort test; however, design changes to the Dragon V2 crew capsule led to the decision to delay the in-flight abort test until after the on-orbit uncrewed test flight of Dragon V2 so that the same model could be used to validate both tests.
The announcement of the delay was also coupled with a change of venue for the in-flight abort test.
SpaceX had originally planned to use a variant of the Falcon rocket in a launch from its California facility for the in-flight abort.
However, SpaceX has now changed those plans to use its new LC-39A launch facility for the in-flight abort test.
Atlas V welcomes CST-100 Starliner:
The Kennedy Space Center is no longer the only facility on the Space Coast seeing changes to launch pad infrastructure.
A very prominent change across the lagoon at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station began in September at the Atlas V pad, LC-41.
Following the official selection of Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, formally named Starliner, as part of NASA’s commercial crew operations program, Boeing has participated with United Launch Alliance (ULA) in the offsite construction of a launch service tower that will be necessary to support human missions of the Atlas V rocket with the CST-100 Starliner atop.
The service tower, designed to provide access to the CST-100 Starliner for pre-launch processing, crew access, and safety egress systems should the need to evacuate Starliner on the pad occur, was built offsite for transportation to LC-41 in between Atlas V missions.
Of importance here is the ability of ULA and Boeing to work together in the construction of the tower so as not to interfere with Atlas V’s busy launch schedule, which recently saw two flights from LC-41 within one calendar month (Sept. 2 and Oct. 2) of each other and a third mission set for Oct. 30.
In between the September and October Atlas V missions, segments of the new crew launch tower were stacked together at LC-41.
Historically, LC-41 has seen a share of notable satellite launches, including the Helios probe, the Viking probes to Mars, and the Voyager interplanetary and interstellar deep space probes by Titan rockets, as well as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, New Horizons, Juno, and the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” missions by the Atlas V rocket.
Blue Origin at the Cape:
On 15 September 2015, Blue Origin announced that it had entered into an lease agreement for Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from Space Florida.
LC-36 had previously been used as part of the venerable Atlas-Centaur program from the 1960s through the 2005 retirement of the Atlas III rocket.
In total, 69 launches were performed from LC-36A, with an additional 76 launches from LC-36B during the Atlas-Centaur program’s use of the pad complex.
Following the introduction of the Atlas V and the retirement of the Atlas III variant of the workhorse rocket family, the Atlas-Centaur umbilical towers at both LC-36A and LC-36B pads were demolished in 2006, followed by the 16 June 2007 controlled demolition of the two mobile service towers at the complex.
While the exact nature of the pad structures and systems to support a Blue Origin vehicle is unknown at this time, Blue Origin hopes to conduct the first orbital launch of its new vehicle later this decade.
The September announcement from Blue Origin is expected to breathe new life into the LC-36 complex as Blue Origin utilizes the Space Coast area not only for launches, but also for the production of hardware.
“One of the unique things about our Florida operations is that we aren’t just launching here, we’re building here,” wrote Mr. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Blue Origin.
“At Exploration Park, we’ll have a 21st century production facility where we’ll focus on manufacturing our reusable fleet of orbital launchers and readying them for flight again and again.
“Locating vehicle assembly near our launch site eases the challenge of processing and transporting really big rockets.”
In fact, the Blue Origin orbital rocket is a two-stage rocket and capsule system sporting BE-4 engines that will ferry astronauts and payloads to low-Earth orbit destinations
This vehicle also taps into Blue Origin’s aspirations for first stage reuse, potentially landing just a short distance from SpaceX’s first stage landing site at LC-13.
“Residents of the Space Coast have enjoyed front-row seats to the future for nearly 60 years. Our team’s passion for pioneering is the perfect fit for a community dedicated to forging new frontiers,” added Mr. Bezos.
(Images: Via NASA, Blue Origin and L2 – including renders from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full hi-res gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)
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