SpaceX’s backup Dragon launch pad is on track to debut in 2023

SpaceX has begun building a backup launch pad for its Cargo and Crew Dragon spacecraft and says the facility could be ready for use as early as fall 2023.

Reuters first revealed those plans in June 2022. It arose because NASA told SpaceX that it was concerned that the company’s first Starship launch site — located at the only platform currently capable of launching the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft — could add too many risks. In September 2022, NASA and SpaceX have acknowledged plans to modify the LC-40 for Dragon launches He indicated that both parties decided to move forward.

Four months later, SpaceX and NASA gave another press conference update. Officials confirmed that construction had already taken place Partially ongoing It stated that the LC-40 could be ready to support its first Dragon launch less than a year from now.

With Boeing’s comparable Starliner capsule years behind schedule and still not eligible for human launches, NASA has relied almost exclusively on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to launch its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) since 2020. The Starliner should be ready for a pioneering sequel. Crew Dragon operational space by the end of 2023 or early 2024, relieving some of that pressure.

However, NASA chose to develop two spacecraft to ensure that one spacecraft would be more likely to be available if the other was grounded. any the reason. Adding in the possibility that a giant new experimental rocket (the Starship) could halt all SpaceX Dragon launches in one fell swoop was apparently one bridge too much for the agency.

The LC-40 has supported 9 launches in the past 8 weeks. (Richard Angel)

SpaceX’s answer to the problem was as simple, elegant, and cheap as possible. The company has two operational Falcon launchers in Florida, and has proposed retrofitting the second one. The LC-40 platform is located at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) on a secure military base and has a longer history of successful Falcon 9 launches than Pad 39A. It also looks like its design would allow SpaceX to add the Dragon access tower without the need for major redesigns or months of downtime.

The LC-40 is SpaceX’s most productive launch pad to date, and the company intends for it Launch up to 100 times in 2023. It is therefore essential that the pad remains as active as possible as modified – which is a huge challenge. A combination of luck and the fact that the launch pad is already working is the only possible reason.

Modifying SpaceX’s busiest board

In theory, SpaceX needs to do relatively little to enable Dragon launches from the LC-40. The Dragon flight spacecraft is processed in a separate facility and only heads to the pad once it’s ready to connect it to a Falcon 9 rocket. The biggest modification the LC-40 needs is the launch tower, but SpaceX ironically has the expertise. Build giant towers In sections – and off site – through Starship.

The Dragon LC-40 access tower requires less complex plumbing and should be smaller and easier to manufacture and pre-assemble. Regulatory documents indicate that the new tower will be 81 meters (265 feet) tall — about a third shorter than the 110-meter-tall SpaceX tower modified in Pad 39A for the same purpose. The LC-40 will also need a file Reach arm swings To connect the tower to the dragon hole. This arm can also be constructed off-site, further reducing the amount of downtime required.

The upper half of the LC-40 T/E clearly visible here is connected by removable screws, which makes the process of modifying the plate to support firing the Dragon less of a hassle than it could have been. (Richard Angel)

The most disruptive modifications might include the LC-40’s Transport/Erector (T/E), which pivots the Falcon 9 to the pad, lifts it vertically, and secures it with giant clamps; It hosts a maze of plumbing that feeds, pressurizes, and powers the rocket. The LC-40’s T/E upper has a strut designed to support the Falcon’s payload fairing. By comparison, the T/E of 39A is built with interchangeable “heads” that allow SpaceX to switch between Dragon and fairing configurations in a matter of days. The LC-40’s upper T/E also appears to be somewhat removable, but SpaceX may still have to hold up the launch for a few weeks to get the T/E up to spec and adjust it for the Dragon.

SpaceX says the LC-40 will be ready to support its first Dragon launch as early as fall (Q4) 2023. Its first Dragon mission will fly cargo to the International Space Station, which means the turret, boom, and pad won’t need to be immediately human-class. . Theoretically, SpaceX could even launch Cargo Dragon 2 from an LC-40 without a turret or boom, since the turret’s only purpose during uncrewed missions is to load flying cargo at the last possible second. SpaceX could go back to a practice dating back to their original Dragon 1 spacecraft and devise a way to load cargo late while the Falcon 9 and Dragon are still in horizontal position.

The spacecraft is nine times heavier and twice as long as Falcon 9. (spacex)

The tower and access arm are only necessary for Crew Dragon launches, as astronauts must board the spacecraft a few hours before liftoff. Most importantly, the same arm and turret will be used to escape Dragon and Falcon 9 in the event of a minor emergency. NASA requires an escape (exit) system for human evaluation of the launch pad and rocket. SpaceX fulfilled this requirement on Pad 39A with a slidewire basket system which transports the astronauts to a concrete bunker hundreds of meters from the rocket. Before the LC-40 can be classified by a human, SpaceX will likely need to build the same basket and bunker system or come up with a viable alternative.

Once completed, SpaceX will have two pads capable of supporting all Crew and Cargo Dragon launches. With that redundancy in place, NASA should be more open to regular launches of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket from Pad 39A. Access to multiple platforms will likely be necessary for the Starship to complete NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contracts, which will culminate in the giant rocket Return humans to the moon to The first (and second) time in half a century In mid and late 2020.

SpaceX’s backup Dragon launch pad is on track to debut in 2023

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