SpaceX’s Pad 39A undergoing upgrades for Dragon 2 crew launches

by Chris Bergin

Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is preparing for a return to crew launches, with modifications taking place to prepare the Fixed Service Structure (FSS) for the installation of the Crew Access Arm (CAA) and associated crew support equipment. The gantry – that astronauts will use to ingress Dragon 2 spacecraft – is at KSC undergoing final assembly inside a large tent.

The historic Pad 39A is no stranger to crew launches, having been part of the Apollo and Shuttle Programs.

Its last crew launch was with Shuttle Atlantis and the STS-135 mission that closed out the Space Shuttle Program in 2011.

SpaceX took over the pad for the dual purpose of launching Falcon 9 rockets and eventually Falcon Heavy, signing a 20-year lease brokered with NASA and Space Florida – the State of Florida’s economic development agency.

Work to remove Shuttle heritage Ground Support Equipment (GSE) from 39A has been ongoing for some time, the latest of which saw the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) dismantled.

This work was ongoing while SpaceX continued to launch Falcon 9s from the pad, with Falcon Heavy also making her mark on the famous pad during the successful test flight in February.

The next step in SpaceX’s use of 39A will be to launch Dragon 2 spacecraft atop Falcon 9 rockets.

In preparation for that milestone, cranes have taken up positions at the base – and even high up the structure – to conduct work that is focused on the top levels of the FSS.

Workers at the top of 39A’s FSS – via Nathan Baker for NSF/L2

While SpaceX – upon request – wouldn’t be drawn on the specifics of the work taking place, the goal is clearly related to future Dragon 2 missions from the pad.

The first Dragon 2 is set to launch on a Falcon 9 later this year, followed by a crewed launch. Both vehicles will dock with the International Space Station (ISS) during their test flights.

Internally, a new level is being added near the top of the FSS, which will be parallel to the new Crew Access Arm. It will be installed 70 feet higher than the former Space Shuttle crew access arm.

The new FSS level for the CAA via SpaceX and NSF member Woods170

This modification will also raise the height of the slidewire Emergency Egress System (EES) that was used – and is now being repurposed – during the Shuttle-era to the associated platform.

The new platform was spotted in a relatively old SpaceX materials showing the modified 39A in action during the since-canceled Falcon Heavy launch of the Red Dragon to Mars.

NASA’s 39B will also employ a slidewire EES, after opting against continuing with the Ares-era – and hugely expensive – roller coaster EES.

With visual evidence of the new platform now being installed, it is likely SpaceX has not altered its own plans from initial renders, which may also include encasing the FSS in panels to protect the inner workings of the crew facilities inside the FSS from Florida’s corrosive salt air. Such panels have been observed at KSC, although it has not been confirmed they are for this specific role on 39A.

What has been confirmed via photography is the current location of the Crew Access Arm, which is currently being assembled inside a tent at 39A.

Mostly obscured from view, the 39A CAA for SpaceX, via NSF member Brovane.

A confirmed installation date for the CAA is still pending, but it is understood that this addition to the pad won’t occur until after the first Dragon 2 test flight, as was stated by officials in April.

That test flight is likely to be taking place No Earlier Than (NET) mid-September and possibly in October.

That launch is currently set to be the next mission to fly from 39A – officially classed as DM-1 (Demonstration Mission -1) – followed by the Crew Dragon in-flight abort test and two Falcon Heavy flights, although the running order is yet to be confirmed.

Modifying 39A for crew launches won’t be the final work to take place at the pad, should SpaceX continue to eye the pad as a future launch site for the BFR (Big ‘Falcon’ Rocket).

Although the specifics of the BFR launch pad set up remain notional via videos and presentations from Elon Musk, evaluations into the current information show a 9-meter diameter BFR vehicle could share LC-39A with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

One of numerous 39A BFR options (notional, non-official) – rendered by Jay L. DeShetler for NSF/L2

A L2 Envisioning process with pad engineers and experts – evaluating a second, larger, Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) outside the pad perimeter – show an allowance for the BFR to roll to an additional mount along the same trench at 39A.

KSC pad engineers noted several options for additional HIF space, based on previous piling allowances that range back to the Saturn V days, along with logistical access.

Other options – outlined and envisioned in numerous renders in this L2 thread – include an extension to the current HIF used by Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy and longer HIF option to South East of the current HIF.

Related Articles