KSC Flyover: SLC-40 crew tower rising, Roberts Road expansion detailed

by Tyler Gray

Florida’s Space Coast has been awash with launch activity as of late, thanks in large part to the ever-increasing cadence that SpaceX is fostering. Even with this, several facilities in and around the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) have seen a pulse of activity in recent days, with SpaceX and Blue Origin in particular taking steps to either bolster their existing infrastructure or prepare for future hardware testing.
Blue Origin — Exploration Park

At Blue Origin’s manufacturing complex at Exploration Park — where large elements of the company’s orbital-class New Glenn launcher will be produced — it has been somewhat quiet, though there has been a continued buildup of hardware outside of the main production building. While this is not rocket hardware, it shows what is necessary for the design and construction of a large vehicle.

New Glenn will be a substantial step up for Blue Origin compared to its New Shepard suborbital launch system, with a diameter of 7 meters and a height of approximately 98 meters — much larger than other vehicles in its class, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur.

While the campus has not seen much growth lately, parts for a new tent have been spotted on site next to the warehouse. This could be a quick way to add additional hardware storage, or even to aid in the construction of newer facilities.

Space Commerce Way — the roadway which runs along Blue Origin’s property at KSC — is also being updated, with two more lanes being added in order to support a higher flow of traffic. This is important for the overall infrastructure surrounding the space center, as it grows steadily busier year on year.

In September, Blue Origin submitted plans for a new facility based within Cape Canaveral, covering nearly 60 acres of land and purposed for “the refurbishment of launch vehicles, and reuse of existing large and small components for rocket launches.” This is likely to be the new hub for New Glenn hardware refurbishment, such as first stage boosters.

An aerial view of Blue Origin’s manufacturing complex at Exploration Park, as seen during an NSF flyover. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

The company had originally planned to construct a refurbishment facility within Launch Complex 36, which will begin playing host to New Glenn launches as soon as 2024. However, these plans seem to have changed.

Interestingly, only approximately 25 acres of this new property appear to be allocated for the refurbishment facility, with the remaining 35 acres to be “developed in the future” — possibly for an expansion of the refurbishment building, though it remains to be seen.

Blue Origin — Launch Complex 36

At LC-36, the first stage simulator for New Glenn (also known as the GS-1 simulator) has been rolled out of the hangar and is currently situated next to the second stage (GS-2) simulator. These were built by Blue Origin for the purpose of practicing operations using objects with similar sizes, shapes, and weights as flight-ready rocket stages.

While it is unclear as to why these simulators have been placed outside, it is likely they will not be rolled out to the launch pad for further practice, with Blue Origin instead readying for actual New Glenn tankage.

Near the two stage simulators, the company’s self-propelled modular transporter (SPMT) system was spotted on the ramp with counterweights onboard. This may be a sign that Blue Origin are preparing to lower the transporter erector and roll it back to the hangar.

SpaceX — Roberts Road

Meanwhile, at SpaceX, the company has been launching apace throughout 2023, having flown 70 missions as of October 5. However, this increased cadence has not slowed them in other aspects, such as launch pad upgrades.

Three of the four sections of the new Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) crew access tower have been transported from SpaceX’s Roberts Road facility to the pad, with the final section — fitted with a stairwell, elevator shaft, and associated hardware — left to be delivered. The addition of this tower will enable crewed flights of Dragon to take place from SLC-40, increasing flexibility and freeing up Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) for other missions, including Starship flights.

A close-up view of the final SLC-40 crew access tower section and its associated hardware, as seen during an NSF flyover. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

Recently, NASA released the Draft Environmental Assessment for SpaceX’s planned expansion of Roberts Road, having started the review process in June 2022. This document details a conceptual plan showing two structures, one with a significantly larger footprint. This bears some resemblance to the Starfactory and Mega Bays at SpaceX’s Starbase production facility in South Texas.

All signs point to SpaceX wanting a return of Starship operations to KSC within the near future, and are taking steps to plan ahead before the completion of the environmental assessment — which may still be months away yet.

Other items of interest are present in the draft assessment, including the desire to consolidate operations at Roberts Road and the possibility of widening the NASA Causeway by an additional 8 feet (2.4 meters) — likely for the transportation of Starship vehicles through KSC.

SpaceX — LC-39A and SLC-40

As mentioned previously, within the last month, SpaceX has transported three of the four sections of the SLC-40 crew access tower from Roberts Road to their Cape Canaveral launch pad, and have since stacked them using a crane. The final section will be delivered to the site and stacked within the coming days or weeks.

This has not slowed or stopped any flights coming out of SLC-40, with SpaceX planning mission operations and construction work around each other to prevent conflicts. This includes the scheduling of launches during nighttime, when construction would be paused, and resuming work while pad systems are being refurbished for the next mission.

Meanwhile, at LC-39A, SpaceX is preparing its next Falcon Heavy rocket for the launch of NASA’s Psyche mission to the asteroid belt. The company successfully completed a static fire test on September 30, and have since rolled the vehicle back into the hangar for payload integration.

The launch is currently scheduled to occur no earlier than Thursday, October 12 at 10:16 AM Eastern (14:16 UTC), having been delayed from the previous target of October 5 due to issues with the Psyche spacecraft’s thrusters.

KSC — Launch and Landing Facility, Artemis

The structure of Amazon’s payload processing facility continues to grow at the Launch and Landing Facility at KSC, where the company’s Kuiper internet satellites will undergo final processing before being integrated with Vulcan Centaur and New Glenn rocket fairings for launch.

Amazon broke ground on the facility earlier in the summer, and is concurrently planning to start satellite production at a manufacturing facility in Kirkland, Washington by the end of 2023.

At the northern end of the Launch and Landing Facility complex, a set of train cars carrying the Space Launch System solid rocket booster (SRB) segments for the Artemis II mission were seen parked at the suspect siding area.

Two of the cars, each housing an aft SRB segment, have since been transported to the Rotation, Processing, and Surge Facility (RPSF), where technicians will install the nozzles and skirts on each of the aft segments before taking them to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for stacking onto the Mobile Launcher.

ML-1 (Mobile Launcher-1) remains at the pad at Launch Complex 39B, undergoing systems checks and rehearsals in preparation for the launch of Artemis II. ML-2 — intended to support Artemis IV and beyond — is still under construction, with a platform structure becoming apparent.

(Lead image: An aerial view of SpaceX’s operations area at Roberts Road with NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building in the distance, as seen during an NSF flyover. Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF)

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