Historic Pad 39A Being Transformed for Falcon Launches

Pad 39A (Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)
Pad 39A Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (NASA PR) — Removing hundreds of thousands of pounds of steel and adding robust, new fixtures, SpaceX is steadily transforming Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for use as a launch pad for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The launchers will lift numerous payloads into orbit, including the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with astronauts aboard bound for the International Space Station.

Pad 39A is being modified for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches (Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)
Pad 39A is being modified for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches (Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)

A horizontal integration facility was built at the base of the pad and rails installed running up the incline to the flame trench. Instead of arriving to the pad on the back of the crawler-transporters, SpaceX rockets will roll on a custom-built transporter-erector that will carry them up the hill and then stand the rocket up for liftoff. The fixed service structure at the pad deck will remain, although more than 500,000 pounds of steel has already been removed from it. SpaceX has already started removing the rotating service structure, which is attached to the fixed structure. Built for the need to load a shuttle’s cargo bay at the pad, it does not serve a purpose for Falcon launchers whose payloads are mounted on the top of the rocket.

Pad 39A  (Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)
Pad 39A (Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)

SpaceX leased the historic launch pad from NASA in April 2014 and has been steadily remaking it from a space shuttle launch facility into one suited for the needs of the Falcon rockets and their payloads. It is the same launch pad where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins lifted off on July 16, 1969, to begin their Apollo 11 flight that would make history as the first to land people on the moon. Almost all signs of Apollo-era hardware were removed from the launch pad when it was rebuilt for the shuttle.

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  • windbourne

    And when will be the first launch?
    Out of curiosity, once this is built, will it allow spacex to increase launch rate?

  • Pete Zaitcev

    Rails on a significant incline are unexpected. In addition, the launch pad in California does not use rails, so we know they possess the technology.

  • P.K. Sink

    From Reddit:

    “Crew Dragon Demo 1 delayed to May 2017”

    Increase launch rate? Oh yeah, Baby!

  • Rob

    Rails are better at carrying heavy loads.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    But rails are worse at carrying loads at an incline. The coefficient of friction of steel upon steel is much smaller than rubber against concrete, for example. I understand that the crawlerway was not lined with concrete, but rather with gravel, and crawlers used tracks made of steel sections. Anyhow, it appears that the key technology that makes these rails possible is a trackmobile that depends on rubber traction wheels.

  • windbourne

    FH is lighter than saturn and shuttle and both used that crawler.

  • windbourne

    I know about dragon, but this is about a launch pad. Seems like it should be ready long before may 2017.

  • Rob

    The powered wheels are on the rails. The bogie with rubber tires which carries the upper part of the rocket is unpowered. It seems that the rails provide enough grip to pull it up the hill. Which does make sense, considering that those wheels will be carrying the vast majority of the load. It’s not like this is a locomotive pulling a mile of freight cars.

  • MarcVader

    The first launch at 39A is slated to be the Falcon Heavy demo flight in December 2016. It should help a bit, since they should then be able to process to launchers and payload simultaneously. But what will really help is the Boca Chica launch pad under construction in Brownsville, Texas, since there SpaceX will not have to coordinate their launches with the USAF and ULA.

  • Scott

    “I understand that the crawlerway was not lined with concrete, but rather with gravel, and crawlers used tracks made of steel sections.”

    Yes it does, very expensive river rocks imported from out of state from a very specific location. The river rocks were used to stabilize the crawler/Saturn stack during roll out. It also handled the load better than concrete due to the nature of the soil down in Florida.

    BTW if you ever get a chance to see the crawler way in person do NOT try to take any of the rocks with you. Theft of gov’t property is a felony….

  • Rob

    I think his point is that the dirt ramp would be unsuitable for a heavy vehicle running on pneumatic tires. The rocks used for the crawlerway are really only suitable for a tracked vehicle like the crawler-transporter.

  • Rob

    Notably, it’s also transported horizontally in the same manner as Soviet and Russian rockets. That allows the load to be spread over a larger area.

  • Scott

    Agreed just providing a little history on the crawler way. You definitely risk tires slipping on those rocks and torquing the rocket something fierce. Given how thin the F9’s tank walls are those loads could be damage the rocket beyond repair. I would be willing to bet the rails are to take the majority of the load and force the rocket to maintain a set orientation during the entire ascent. I imagine the FH would be very very sensitive to differential torquing

  • P.K. Sink

    I guess that the plan is to debut the Falcon Heavy there before the end of the year. Fingers crossed.

  • Enrique Moreno

    Rails are not better carrying heavy loads. Rails are better guiding linear loads. If you want to carry heavy loads, SPMT are better.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-propelled_modular_transporter#

  • dbooker

    I don’t think traction is an issue as the transporter isn’t self propelled. I believe in one previous photo I saw it was actually attached to a cable so it is in effect winched to the pad. So rails are used for guidance and weight bearing. And cables have the ability to traverse steep inclines. Think of inclines railroads and ski ifts.

  • Hug Doug

    I would not be surprised if SES-10 is the first launch from LC-39A (SES wants to get away from the Air Force controlled launch site), and the CRS-10 mission will probably be launched from there also, prior to the Falcon Heavy demo launch. SpaceX has said before they are going to transition all the NASA launches, both cargo and crew, to LC-39A.

  • MarcVader

    It’s certainly possible.
    Gwynne Shotwell: “We don’t need to have Pad 39A operational this year to get caught up on the manifest. But I do think we are probably going to launch a Falcon 9 before we do the Falcon Heavy in November. SES actually wants to fly from 39A so we are going to see if we can get that ready for SES-10 and maybe SES-11.”

    Also the SES-10 NET launch date coincides nicely with Musk’s announcement of re-flying a booster (used for CRS-8) for a paying customer in September.

  • Rob

    An SPMT is good for carrying many different types of loads, but this is a custom system that’s much more straightforward. Rails are good at carrying heavy loads because the force is distributed over an extremely large area.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    In the second picture, I see a bunch of vertical steel beams that are outside the current frame of the some sort of storage building. I don’t think that’s the HIF in the picture, but what are they building in this area ? If there is a building that hasn’t been erected yet, that will definitely postpone any launch from LC 39.

  • TimAndrews868

    The vertical pipes supported by a framework of beams on either side of the building in the first picture are not the HIF, they are up on the pad (the HIF is downhill from the pad). Those are water pipes for the sound suppression system – big sprinklers.