SpaceX to upgrade Cape Canaveral pad for crew and cargo missions

KAHULUI, Hawaii — As SpaceX prepares to launch a new crew to the International Space Station from a pad at Kennedy Space Center, it begins work to upgrade another pad at Cape Canaveral as a backup.

NASA and SpaceX completed the launch readiness review on Oct. 3 for the Crew-5 mission, which is currently scheduled to launch at noon EST on Oct. 5 from the Launch Complex. 39A. The mission will send NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina to the ISS for up to six months.

During an Oct. 3 briefing, Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said the agency and SpaceX were working on three “open items” before launch, including replacing a controller. thrust vectoring in one of the Falcon 9’s Merlin engines, repairing a leak in a fire extinguisher on the Dragon spacecraft and working on a communications issue that affected a SpaceX drone’s ability to maintain position to support the Falcon 9 booster landing.

None of the issues were “shields” for a launch, Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said during the briefing. Weather conditions are expected to be favorable for launch, with a 90% chance of acceptable conditions at the launch site, but a “moderate” risk of adverse weather conditions along the ascent corridor due to the remnants of Hurricane Ian.

The launch, like all previous Crew Dragon missions, will take place from the LC-39A. But as SpaceX continues to work to host Starship launches from the same complex, company officials said they are also starting to work to host cargo and crew launches from Space Launch Complex 40. at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

During a Sept. 26 briefing, Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX vice president for build and flight reliability, said the company has already begun preparations for necessary upgrades to the SLC-40 for launches. cargo and crew. “We have already started work to begin preparations for Pad 40. We have ordered equipment, put contracts in place,” he said.

He did not specify the work required to prepare the SLC-40 for cargo and crew missions. “We will do freight first. We can do that quite easily,” he said. “It gives us some flexibility to move some things from the 39A, which helps us balance the launches of the two pads. We will add crew at the right time.

SpaceX initially launched Dragon cargo missions from SLC-40. However, when the company switched to the second-generation Dragon freighter, based on the Crew Dragon spacecraft, those launches were all moved to the LC-39A, which has a gantry and access arm for the launch. crew to allow access to the spacecraft until just before launch.

The effort to build crew and cargo capacity at SLC-40 is driven by SpaceX’s work to host Starship launched at LC-39A. As the vehicle has yet to make its first orbital launch attempt, NASA has raised concerns that a failed launch of the spacecraft at LC-39A could damage existing launch infrastructure there. and affect NASA’s ability to send cargo and crews to the ISS.

“We are beginning to track Pad 39A activities against Starship,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, noting that this came up during the readiness review. to the flight that took place before the September 26 briefing. “We are looking at options to have a crew capacity of 40.” He later said NASA was following SpaceX’s plans “every step of the way.”

Gerstenmaier said while construction is underway at LC-39A to accommodate Starship launches, no launch of that vehicle is imminent from the pad. “Our intention is to bring Starship to 39A once we have a reliable vehicle. We will do a series of tests in Boca [Chica] to make sure the vehicle is ready to go. When we think we have a good reliable vehicle, we will raise it to 39A.

It is not known when a “good and reliable” ship will be ready to fly from the LC-39A. SpaceX continued testing of Starship prototypes at its Boca Chica, Texas test site, including static firing tests of the Starship vehicle and its Super Heavy booster, but did not set a launch date for a first attempt at orbital flight.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, tweeted on September 21 that an orbital launch attempt could take place as early as the end of October, “but November seems very likely”. Musk has made numerous predictions about an orbital Starship launch, however, including during a September 2019 event when he predicted that Starship would launch into orbit by mid-2020.

Musk tweeted on August 2 that he expected a successful first orbital Starship flight anytime from 1 to 12 months. The company has not yet obtained a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration for an orbital Starship launch, although it passed an environmental review with conditions in June.

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