#SpaceX may turn to other launch pads when rocket flights resume

SpaceX says launch pad 39A, last used by the space shuttle program in 2011, should be ready for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches in November. Credit: NASA
SpaceX says launch pad 39A, last used by the space shuttle program in 2011, should be ready for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches in November. Credit: NASA

Ground crews could face months of cleanup and repairs to SpaceX’s primary launch pad at Cape Canaveral after a rocket explosion wrecked the facility last week, and officials said that other pads in Florida and California could support Falcon 9 flights when the booster is ready to blast off again.

Ground crews are assessing damage to SpaceX’s primary launch pad at Cape Canaveral in the aftermath of an explosion Thursday that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the Amos 6 commercial communications satellite.

Images of the Falcon 9 launch pad, known as Complex 40, show the top of facility’s strongback structure sustained significant damage. The explosion of the Falcon 9 rocket Thursday twisted the latticework metal at the top of the strongback, which feeds propellants into the launcher’s upper stage and connects electrical umbilical cables to the rocket’s satellite payload.

SpaceX has not disclosed further details on the condition of the launch pad, but the company said it will share more on the status of the launch complex in the future.

“The pad clearly incurred damage, but the scope has yet to be fully determined,” SpaceX said in a statement Friday.

SpaceX’s next launch after the flight with Amos 6 was supposed to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, with 10 communications craft for Iridium’s next-generation voice and data relay constellation. All 10 of the satellites, designed by Thales Alenia Space and built by Orbital ATK in Arizona, were already delivered to Vandenberg before last week’s mishap in Florida.

Crews at Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 4-East, the Falcon 9 launch pad on the West Coast, were in the “final stages of an operational upgrade,” SpaceX said. Company officials said earlier this year the launch pad, last used for a Falcon 9 flight in January, is being outfitted to support missions using SpaceX’s higher-performing “full-thrust” Falcon 9 booster which burns super-chilled densified propellants.

Launches from Vandenberg are only suitable for satellites heading into orbits flying over the poles, and the bulk of SpaceX’s manifest is loaded with missions going to the International Space Station or into orbits over the equator, requiring liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

While the Iridium mission — the first of seven SpaceX launches for the “Iridium Next” fleet — is next in line on the Falcon 9 manifest, it is unclear whether that flight will mark the resumption of SpaceX launch operations. In the aftermath of a Falcon 9 launch failure last year, SpaceX and its customers agreed to shuffle the order of the manifest for the return-to-flight launch.

An Iridium spokesperson said Tuesday that the company is “waiting to receive more information on this event from SpaceX and how it could impact their overall launch manifest.”

The 10 satellites are connected to their SpaceX-built dispenser and ready for filling with toxic hydrazine fuel for in-space maneuvers. That is one of the final steps for a satellite before its launch, and spacecraft are usually not fueled until a target launch date is confirmed a few weeks away.

“We’re confident in SpaceX and that they will find and resolve any issues causing this incident, and we will be ready to go once that occurs,” Iridium said.

SpaceX said it has established an accident investigation team to comb through telemetry data and physical evidence to determine what caused Thursday’s blast, which the company said originated near the Falcon 9’s upper stage liquid oxygen tank.

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket at Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket at Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

“To identify the root cause of the anomaly, SpaceX began its investigation immediately after the loss, consistent with accident investigation plans prepared for such a contingency,” the company said in a statement. “These plans include the preservation of all possible evidence and the assembly of an Accident Investigation Team, with oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration and participation by NASA, the United States Air Force and other industry experts.”

SpaceX said engineers are reviewing approximately 3,000 channels of telemetry and video data covering a time period of just 35-55 milliseconds.

Before last week’s explosion, SpaceX had three launches planned at Vandenberg before the end of the year. After the upcoming Iridium launch, which was set for Sept. 19, another Falcon 9 launch from California’s Central Coast was to follow as soon as late October with Taiwan’s Formosat 5 Earth observation satellite and a commercial Sherpa space tug developed by Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries with around 90 CubeSats and microsatellites.

The second of seven Iridium Next launches under contract to SpaceX was due to occur in late December.

If the clean-up and repairs at Complex 40 prove lengthy, SpaceX could move its operations base in Florida to launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the decommissioned space shuttle pad the company leased for Falcon launches in 2014.

Launch pad 39A is located about three miles north of Complex 40, and SpaceX said construction to modify the shuttle pad for Falcon launches is nearing completion. Pad 39A should be ready for launch operations in November, officials said.

“Both pads are capable of supporting Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches,” SpaceX said of pad 39A and the Vandenberg facility. “We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

from Spaceflight Now ift.tt/2c9ffDz

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