SpaceX May Shift Falcon 9 Launches to Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A

SpaceX is in the final stages of modifying Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. The launchpad is expected to be operational by November 2016, SpaceX says.
SpaceX is in the final stages of modifying Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. The launchpad is expected to be operational by November 2016, SpaceX says. (Image credit: SpaceX)

WASHINGTON — As SpaceX continues the investigation into a Sept. 1 accident that destroyed a Falcon 9 and damaged its Cape Canaveral launch pad, the company said it may use a nearby pad when it is ready to resume launches.

In a statement issued late Sept. 2, SpaceX said it was still in the early phases of the investigation into the explosion of the Falcon 9, which took place about eight minutes before a planned static-fire test of the vehicle's nine first stage engines. The explosion destroyed the rocket and its payload, the Amos-6 communications satellite for Israeli operator Spacecom.

The explosion also caused damage to the pad at Space Launch Complex 40, which has hosted 26 of 28 Falcon 9 launches prior to the Sept. 1 accident. "The pad clearly incurred damage, but the scope has yet to be fully determined," the company said.

Besides the Cape Canaveral site, SpaceX operates a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base , from which the other two Falcon 9 launches took place. In addition, it is in the final steps of modifications to Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, a former Apollo- and shuttle-era launch pad that SpaceX is leasing from NASA under terms of an agreement signed in April 2014. SpaceX said LC-39A should be operational in November.

Although LC-39A is intended primarily for launches of SpaceX's upcoming Falcon Heavy rocket and Falcon 9 launches of commercial crew missions, it could host other Falcon 9 launches as well. "Both pads are capable of supporting Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches," SpaceX said of LC-39A and its Vandenberg site. "We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs."

Experience suggests that the ground-level explosion of the Falcon 9 likely caused significant damage to the launch pad. The failure of an Orbital ATK Antares rocket on an October 2014 launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, when an engine failure caused the vehicle to crash to the ground next to the pad seconds after liftoff, resulted in $15 million in damage that took nearly one year to repair.

The SpaceX update offered few details about the pad accident itself. "At this time, the data indicates the anomaly originated around the upper stage liquid oxygen tank," the company said, the same detail it provided shortly after the accident.

SpaceX said it has assembled an accident investigation team overseen by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial launches like this. NASA and the U.S. Air Force are also participating on the team that is currently reviewing about 3,000 channels of telemetry from the time of the accident.

The accident raised new questions about SpaceX's ability to successfully launch satellite payloads as well as start launching crewed spacecraft as soon as late 2017. SpaceX, in its statement, said it would "carefully and thoroughly investigate and address" the pad explosion. "Again, our number one priority is to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers, as well as to take all the necessary steps to ensure the highest possible levels of safety for future crewed missions with the Falcon 9."

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.