Falcon Heavy build up begins; SLC-40 pad rebuild progressing well

by Chris Gebhardt

As SpaceX continues to make excellent progress on rebuilding SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the company has achieved a major milestone toward the debut of its Falcon Heavy rocket.  With the first Falcon Heavy side core on the test stand at McGregor, Texas, SpaceX is in final preparation for the all important hot fire test of the booster before its shipment to the Kennedy Space Center ahead of a planned maiden flight later this year.

SLC-40 progress – long-pole to Falcon Heavy debut:

Following completion, activation, and christening of LC-39A in February, SpaceX’s dedicated team of pad engineers switched focus a few miles down the beach to SLC-40.

Working the same magic they conducted on 39A, which performed flawlessly during its inaugural use for Falcon 9 back in February, those same engineers have since been hard at work rebuilding the company’s SLC-40 pad on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Heavily damaged – but not destroyed – by the mishap during the Falcon 9 static fire for the AMOS-6 mission on 1 September 2016, the pad is now one of the primary driving factors toward the company’s upcoming debut of its Falcon Heavy rocket.

But not because Falcon Heavy will launch from SLC-40.

Instead, SLC-40 is needed for single-stick Falcon 9 missions – a primary charge the pad will take once it is operational again so that the final elements of work on LC-39A can be completed to host the Falcon Heavy.

Basically, the plan is to shift all Falcon 9 missions back to SLC-40 following its reactivation.

At that point, LC-39A will be taken offline for 60 days to allow engineers to complete work on the pad’s Tail Service Masts (TSMs) needed for fueling and support equipment connections to the two side boosters for the Falcon Heavy.

Previously, SpaceX had stated in the post-launch CRS-10 press conference, that all work on 39A was complete in terms of the pad’s readiness to host a Falcon Heavy.

A few weeks later, that statement – which was given by SpaceX’s Dragon manager – was corrected in information acquired by NASASpaceflight.com’s L2 section and confirmed last month by Elon Musk.

That L2 information revealed that SpaceX had opted to forgo some work on the TEL (Transporter/Erector/Launcher) and two of the three TSMs on LC-39A.

The two work-deferred TSMs for the side boosters of the Falcon Heavy were in no way needed for single-stick Falcon 9 flights – hence why their work was postponed in favor of launching Falcon 9s from 39A as soon as possible.

This TEL and TSM work is now scheduled to begin once SLC-40 is operational.

Down the road, SLC-40’s own TSMs are now receiving their share of attention as SpaceX engineers work to install new TSMs to replace the ones that were damaged in the AMOS-6 conflagration.

According to information obtained by NASASpaceflight.com, available on L2, the damaged TSMs at SLC-40 actually fared quite well through the AMOS-6 incident and could have been refurbished and repaired instead of being replaced.

SpaceX nonetheless opted to build new TSMs as that was deemed easier and quicker than the repair option.

Currently, the old TSMs have been removed from SLC-40 and were initially placed in a staging area alongside their replacements.

The replacements appear to be more or less identical to the old TSMs – though some upgrades were likely incorporated into their design.

Now, the new SLC-40 TSMs are being installed onto the pad, progressing the pad’s repair work that aims to have SLC-40 “operational” by August, a goal that appears achievable at this time.

(It should be noted that “operational” is not necessarily the same as “first flight in August” in terms of pad language.)

Nonetheless, this August “operational” status for SLC-40 is critical toward Falcon Heavy’s planned debut in “late-summer” of this year from 39A – though at this time Falcon Heavy’s maiden flight is looking more like an autumn or later event than a summer one.

Falcon Heavy debut – first side booster at McGregor:

Per the current timeline, the earliest possible switch of Falcon 9 flights back to SLC-40 would be August – meaning the earliest that LC-39A could be deactivated for TSM and TEL work would be 1 August.

That therefore translates to a 60-day work flow culminating at the end of September (at the earliest) – which is past the summer months and into autumn.

Therefore, that would notionally place the first Falcon Heavy flight realistically in the October timeframe at this point.

Mr. Musk stated last month that 39A would not be taken offline prior to SLC-40’s activation.

Given that the personnel working to get SLC-40 up and running are the same engineers who will perform the final 60-day work period on 39A, there is no time between 39A launches to perform this work.

Nonetheless, that is not stopping SpaceX – nor should it – from progressing through Falcon Heavy’s various pre-launch milestones.

Earlier this year, the first side-mount booster – in reality, a regular Falcon 9 core with a nose cone on top – was seen in transit to the company’s McGregor, Texas, test facility.

Last week, on 8 April, that side-booster was hoisted onto the S1 (Stage 1) test stand at McGregor in preparation for its full-duration hot fire run – as all Falcon first stages do.

A test firing is scheduled to take place as early as Wednesday.

The side-booster is – as previously reported – a flight-proven core.

In fact, it is core #1023 – which was previously used to launch the Thaicom-8 mission last year.

That core performed a hot entry landing on the ASDS (Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship) barge Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic, suffering a crumpled landing leg that lovingly earned the core the unofficial nickname “The Leaning Tower Of Thaicom-8”.

The core – now named 1023.2 – will now be hot fired and tested before being wrapped up and transported by road and security escort to the Kennedy Space Center and the HIF (Horizontal Integration Facility) at LC-39A.

Between hot fires of the first stage cores needed for upcoming single-stick Falcon 9 missions, the Falcon Heavy’s second side-booster (which will be another flight-proven core) and its brand new center core will all undergo testing at McGregor – as will its Second Stage – before arriving at or back to Kennedy.

Once at Kennedy, the three cores will be integrated together for the first time inside the HIF.

As with any pad’s first use for a new rocket, Falcon Heavy is expected to be hauled to the pad on the TEL for a series of fit checks, tanking tests – to verify the new TSMs, and general checkout and validation activities ahead of its all important static fire.

This static fire will see all 27 engines at the base of the Falcon Heavy ignite at once and run through a 3-second checkout sequence before shutting down.

That will be the final major milestone before the mission lifts off.

At liftoff, the 1,420,788 kg (3,125,735 lb) Falcon Heavy will deliver 5.13 million pounds of thrust (lbf) from its 27 engines – well within 39A’s capabilities – before ramping up to 5,548,500 lbf during first stage flight.

When it launches for the first time, Falcon Heavy will become the most-powerful launch vehicle in the world – capable of delivering 63,800 kg (140,660 lb) to Low Earth Orbit, 26,700 kg (58,860 lb) to Geostationary Orbit, 16,800 kg (37,040 lb) to Mars, and 3,500 kg (7,720 lb) to Pluto.

(Images: SpaceX, L2 McGregor (Gary Blair), and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*))

(To join L2, click here: //www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)

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