Behind the Scenes at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex 40

Article written: 2 May , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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CAPE CANAVERAL – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) took members of the media on a tour of Launch Complex 40, where the NewSpace firm has successfully launched two of its Falcon 9 rockets and one of its Dragon spacecraft (the first entity other than nations or government bodies to do so). For the media, this tour was an eye-opening experience.

SpaceX had obviously worked long and hard to allow the world to get a grasp what it is that they are doing – while at the same time avoiding International Travel in Arms Regulations (ITAR) related issues. In a well-choreographed affair the tour was split into two separate groups, one checked out the Falcon 9 hangar, while the other group inspected the launch pad that sent last December’s Falcon 9 flight on its date with history.

The first Falcon 9 rocket takes off from Space Launch Complex 40 on June 8, 2010. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

One enters the hangar and is greeted by the impressive site of nine Merlin engines facing them – the business end of the next Falcon 9 rocket being prepped for launched. Despite the eye-candy on display it is the simple elegance of what is described that sells this place. The horizontally integration system allows the rocket to be extremely mobile (about four people could move one of the rocket’s stages around). The system’s frictionless design is what allows SpaceX such ease of mobility.

Members of the media listen to a description of the hangar housing the next Falcon 9 rocket that is being prepared for launch. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

“Our concept of operations is unlike anybody else’s that is flying these days with the exception of the Russians and maybe Sea Launch,” said SpaceX’s Director of Mission Assurance and Integration Scott Henderson. “We use horizontal integration, we will build an entire booster here in the hangar so you have the first stage and the interstage are here now, the second stage will arrive, the Dragon and trunk will arrive and we’ll put all that together, test it inside the hangar and then when we are ready to roll out for launch we’ll open this hangar door, you saw the vertical transporter-erector outside, that would lower down on pistons, we’d roll that whole structure…into the hangar drive the transporter-erector beneath the rocket, then roll out to the launch pad and lift it vertical.”

To ensure that everyone was afforded the opportunity to check out SLC 40, former astronaut Ken Bowersox now SpaceX's vice president of Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance gave up his seat and sat in the bus' stairwell. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

After this segment of the tour wraps up we move outside to the launch pad. The most striking contrast to other launch sites at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is that it isn’t vertically-based. Rather the Falcon 9 rolls out horizontally and is moved into the vertical position much in the same way as the Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles are. Also, the launch pad has been simplified, this highlights SpaceX’s philosophy as well as helps the company. If something does get damaged during launch, it requires minimal effort to repair and reset the launch pad for the next mission on the horizon.

Space Launch Complex 40 stands ready to send another Falcon 9 to orbit. Photo Cedit Jason Rhian

Jason has degrees in journalism and public relations. He has covered over 30 launches as well as other space-related events – including flying with Commander Chris Ferguson as he trained for the final shuttle mission, the president’s visit to KSC and from Utah during the test of the five-segment DM-2 booster.


6 Responses

  1. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Sound engineering principles. And if the russians are doing it and it works, you are presumably looking at some robust method, even today.

    The “burn and replace” strategy is coincidental though, any cheap method gives you that. So I guess SpaceX is on top of PR too. 😀

    • TerryG says

      “robust method”s yes while some innovations are also being introduced.

      For example, the Launch Escape System is being built into the capsule’s hull just like the reaction control system used for orbital maneuvering. This technique, to be used at Blue Origin and SpaceX, saves carrying the dead weight of a Launch Escape Tower at lift-off as featured on Russian designs and Lockheed-Martin’s Orion.

      SpaceX intend that Dragon will eventually perform propulsive landings all the way down to a ground-level hard surface, with parachute backup. Meantime, with the vastly more expensive Orion will perform splash-downs under a parachute canopy.

      As for being on top of PR, have you checked out the SpaceX Mars video?

      • Torbjorn Larsson OM says

        Well, it saves _ some_ weight, it is probably fuel waste to take it all the way up – unless you have some other use for it.

        Yes, I have seen it, and as for the Falcon Heavy vs Energia comparison, Musk is spinning things.

        [If Energia isn’t to be compared with potential capability, the Falcon 9 isn’t yet the lifter he claims.

        If the Mars transit (radiation) and landing (heavy landers) problems isn’t to be compared with todays capability, then Dragon should be already finished, right?]

        But he is allowed this time, since Dragon could feasibly be adapted to be part of a landing system. Say, fitted as the nose of an inflatable landing cone for heavy loads. And the transit problem isn’t really down to a single Dragon anyway.

        So yay for that!

    • Jason Rhian says

      Torbjorn, in regards to your comment about SpaceX being on top of PR – until very recently – not so much. In fact until they hired Bobby Block as their VP of Communications SpaceX was atrocious with their PR and media relations.

      In the grand scheme of things though, the company is in the business of launching rockets not public relations efforts. In that regard – the company is doing great and its PR efforts are improving.

  2. Emilio says

    During rocketry development in the 50s and 60s, US had lot more resources to maximize throw weight to orbit. That pushed us to reduce launch weight, simply because we could do it. Russian design focused on what they could do to get away with it. They are still flying basic hardware done in the 50s and 60s.

  3. Member
    Aqua says

    I admire simple but effective designs… and Space-X! Can’t wait to see the next launch!

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