SpaceX Awaits FAA Falcon 9 Launch License for 1st Pad 39A Blastoff on NASA ISS Cargo Flight

SpaceX crews are renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. New rocket processing hangar sits at left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – With liftoff tentatively penciled in for mid-February, SpaceX still awaits FAA approval of a launch license for what will be the firms first Falcon 9 rocket to launch from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center – on a critical NASA mission to resupply the space station – the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) confirmed today to Universe Today.

“The FAA is working closely with SpaceX to ensure the activity described in the application meets all applicable regulations for a launch license,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

As of today, Feb. 7, SpaceX has not yet received “a license determination” from the FAA – as launch vehicle, launch pad and payload preparations continue moving forward for blastoff of the NASA contracted flight to carry science experiments and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX cargo Dragon atop an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A on the Florida Space Coast.

“The FAA will continue to work with SpaceX to provide a license determination in a timely manner,” Price told me.

SpaceX currently has license applications pending with the FAA for both the NASA cargo launch and pad 39A. No commercial launch can take place without FAA approval.

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dragon CRS-9 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The goal of the 22-story tall SpaceX Falcon 9 is to carry an unmanned Dragon cargo freighter for the NASA customer on the CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Dragon will be loaded with more than two tons of equipment, gear, food, supplies and NASA’s Stratospheric Aerosol Gas Experiment III (SAGE III) ozone mapping science payload.

Engineers at work processing NASA’s Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III, or SAGE III instrument inside the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today in December 2016. Technicians are working in a super-clean ‘tent’ built in the SSPF high bay to protect SAGE III’s special optics and process the Ozone mapper for upcoming launch on the SpaceX CRS-10 Dragon cargo flight to the International Space Station in early 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The historic NASA launch pad was formerly used to launch both America’s space shuttles and astronauts on Apollo/Saturn V moon landing missions.

SpaceX, founded by billionaire CEO Elon Musk, leased Launch Complex 39A from NASA back in April 2014 and is modifying and modernizing the pad for unmanned and manned launches of the Falcon 9 as well as the Falcon Heavy.

The role of the FAA is to license commercial launches and protect the public.

“The FAA licenses commercial rocket launches and reentries to ensure the protection of public health and safety,” Price elaborated.

This FAA license situation is similar to that for last month’s Falcon 9 ‘Return to Flight’ launch from California, where the SpaceX approval was granted only days before liftoff of the Iridium-1 mission.

Last week SpaceX announced a shuffled launch schedule, whereby the NASA cargo flight on the CRS-10 resupply mission was placed first in line for liftoff from pad 39A – ahead of a commercial EchoStar communications satellite.

The aerospace company said the payload switch would allow additional time was to complete all the extensive ground support work and pad testing required for repurposing seaside Launch Complex 39A from launching the NASA Space Shuttle to the SpaceX Falcon 9.

The inaugural Falcon 9 blastoff from pad 39A has slipped repeatedly from January into February 2017.

The unofficial most recently targeted ‘No Earlier Than’ NET date for CRS-10 has apparently slipped from NET Feb 14 to Feb 17.

CRS-10 counts as SpaceX’s tenth cargo flight to the ISS since 2012 under contract to NASA.

Further launch postponements are quite possible at any time and NASA is officially stating a goal of “NET mid-February” – but with no actual target date specified.

SpaceX is repurposing historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida for launches of the Falcon 9 rocket. Ongoing pad preparation by work crews is seen in this current view taken on Jan. 27, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Crews have been working long hours to transform and refurbish pad 39A and get it ready for Falcon 9 launches. Furthermore, a newly built transporter erector launcher was seen raised at the pad multiple times in recent weeks. The transporter will move the rocket horizontally up the incline at the pad, and then erect it vertically for launch.

SpaceX was previously employing pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for Falcon 9 launches to the ISS as well as commercial launches.

But pad 40 suffered severe damage following the unexpected launch pad explosion on Sept 1, 2016 that completely destroyed a Falcon 9 and the $200 million Amos-6 commercial payload during a prelaunch fueling test.
Furthermore it is not known when pad 40 will be ready to resume launches.

Thus SpaceX has had to switch launch pads for near term future flights and press pad 39A into service much more urgently, and the refurbishing and repurposing work is not yet complete.

Pad 39A has lain dormant for launches for nearly six years since Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on the final shuttle mission STS 135 in July 2011.

To date SpaceX has not rolled a Falcon 9 rocket to pad 39A, not raised it to launch position, not conducted a fueling exercise and not conducted a static fire test. All the fit checks with a real rocket remain to be run.

Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship and solar panels atop Falcon 9 rocket at pad 40 prior to blastoff to ISS on July 18, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Once the pad is ready, SpaceX plans an aggressive launch schedule in 2017.

“The launch vehicles, Dragon, and the EchoStar satellite are all healthy and prepared for launch,” SpaceX stated.

The history making first use of a recycled Falcon 9 carrying the SES-10 communications satellite could follow as soon as March or April, if all goes well – as outlined here.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Used SpaceX Booster Set for Historic 1st Reflight is Test Fired in Texas

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage previously flown to space is test fired at the firms McGregor, TX rocket development facility in late January 2017 to prepare for relaunch. Credit: SpaceX

The first orbit class SpaceX rocket that will ever be reflown to launch a second payload to space was successfully test fired by SpaceX engineers at the firms Texas test facility last week.

The once fanciful dream of rocket recycling is now closer than ever to becoming reality, after successful completion of the static fire test on a test stand in McGregor, Texas, paved the path to relaunch, SpaceX announced via twitter.

The history making first ever reuse mission of a previously flown liquid fueled Falcon 9 first stage booster equipped with 9 Merlin 1D engines could blastoff as soon as March 2017 from the Florida Space Coast with the SES-10 telecommunications satellite, if all goes well.

The booster to be recycled was initially launched in April 2016 for NASA on the CRS-8 resupply mission under contract for the space agency.

“Prepping to fly again — recovered CRS-8 first stage completed a static fire test at our McGregor, TX rocket development facility last week,” SpaceX reported.

The CRS-8 Falcon 9 first stage booster successfully delivered a SpaceX cargo Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS) in April 2016.

The Falcon 9 first stage was recovered about 8 minutes after liftoff via a propulsive soft landing on an ocean going droneship in the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles (600 km) off the US East coast.

First launch of flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage will use CRS-8 booster that delivered Dragon to the International Space Station in April 2016. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX, founded by billionaire and CEO Elon Musk, inked a deal in August 2016 with telecommunications giant SES, to refly a ‘Flight-Proven’ Falcon 9 booster.

Luxembourg-based SES and Hawthrone, CA-based SpaceX jointly announced the agreement to “launch SES-10 on a flight-proven Falcon 9 orbital rocket booster.”

Exactly how much money SES will save by utilizing a recycled rocket is not known. But SpaceX officials have been quoted as saying the savings could be between 10 to 30 percent.

The SES-10 launch on a recycled Falcon 9 booster was originally targeted to take place before the end of 2016.

That was the plan until another Falcon 9 exploded unexpectedly on the ground at SpaceX’s Florida launch pad 40 during a routine prelaunch static fire test on Sept. 1 that completed destroyed the rocket and its $200 million Amos-6 commercial payload on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Sept. 1 launch pad disaster heavily damaged the SpaceX pad and launch infrastructure facilities at Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Pad 40 is still out of commission as a result of the catastrophe. Few details about the pad damage and repair work have been released by SpaceX and it is not known when pad 40 will again be certified to resume launch operations.

Therefore SpaceX ramped up preparations to launch Falcon 9’s from the firms other pad on the Florida Space Coast – namely historic Launch Complex 39A which the company leased from NASA in 2014.

SpaceX is repurposing historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida for launches of the Falcon 9 rocket. Ongoing pad preparation by work crews is seen in this current view taken on Jan. 27, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Pad 39A is being repurposed by SpaceX to launch the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. It was previously used by NASA for more than four decades to launch Space Shuttles and Apollo moon rockets.

But SES-10 is currently third in line to launch atop a Falcon 9 from pad 39A.

The historic first launch of a Falcon 9 from pad 39A is currently slated for no earlier than Feb. 14 on the CRS-10 resupply mission for NASA to the ISS – as reported here.

The EchoStar 23 comsat is slated to launch next, currently no earlier than Feb 28.

SES-10 will follow – if both flights go well.

SpaceX successfully launched SES-9 for SES in March 2016.

Sunset blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying SES-9 communications satellite from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Last July, SpaceX engineers conducted a test firing of another recovered booster as part of series of test examining long life endurance testing. It involved igniting all nine used first stage Merlin 1D engines housed at the base of a used landed rocket.

The Falcon 9 first stage generates over 1.71 million pounds of thrust when all nine Merlin engines fire up on the test stand for a duration of up to three minutes – the same as for an actual launch.

Watch the engine test in this SpaceX video:

Video Caption: Falcon 9 first stage from May 2016 JCSAT mission was test fired, full duration, at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas rocket development facility on July 28, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

SES-10 satellite mission artwork. Credit: SES

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX and NASA Confirm Delay of First Crewed Dragon Flight to 2018

SpaceX Dragon V2 docks at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 docks at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Launching Americans back to space and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil on American rockets via NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) has just suffered another significant but not unexpected delay, with an announcement from NASA that the target date for inaugural crewed flight aboard a SpaceX commercial Crew Dragon has slipped significantly from 2017 to 2018.

NASA announced the revised schedule on Dec. 12 and SpaceX media affairs confirmed the details of the launch delay to Universe Today.

The postponement of the demonstration mission launch is the latest fallout from the recent launch pad explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 1 during final preparations and fueling operations for a routine preflight static fire test.

Since the Falcon 9 is exactly the same booster that SpaceX will employ to loft American astronauts in the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the space station, the stakes could not be higher with astronauts lives on the line.

Blastoff of the first Crew Dragon spacecraft on its first unmanned test flight is postponed from May 2017 to August 2017, according to the latest quarterly revision just released by NASA. Liftoff of the first piloted Crew Dragon with a pair of NASA astronauts strapped in has slipped from August 2017 to May 2018.

“The Commercial crew updated dates for Demo 1 (no crew) is Q4 2017,” SpaceX’s Phil Larson told Universe Today. “For Demo 2 (with 2 crew members) the updated commercial crew date is Q2 2018 [for Crew Dragon].”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

Although much has been accomplished since NASA’s commercial crew program started in 2010, much more remains to be done before NASA will approve these launches.

“The next generation of American spacecraft and rockets that will launch astronauts to the International Space Station are nearing the final stages of development and evaluation,” said NASA KSC public affairs officer Stephanie Martin.

Above all both of the commercial crew providers – namely Boeing and SpaceX – must demonstrate safe, reliable and robust spacecraft and launch systems.

“NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will return human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil, providing reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit on systems that meet our safety and mission requirements. To meet NASA’s requirements, the commercial providers must demonstrate that their systems are ready to begin regular flights to the space station.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

These latest launch delays come on top of other considerable delays announced earlier this year when SpaceX has still hoping to launch the unpiloted Crew Dragon mission before the end of 2016 – prior to the Sept 1 launch pad catastrophe.

“We are finalizing the investigation of our Sept. 1 anomaly and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight,” Larson told me.

“As this investigation has been conducted, our Commercial Crew team has continued to work closely with NASA and is completing all planned milestones for this period.”

SpaceX is still investigating the root causes of the Sept. 1 anomaly, working on fixes and implementing any design changes – as well as writing the final report that must be submitted to the FAA, before they can launch the planned ‘Return to Flight’ mission from their California launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

No launch can occur until the FAA grants a license after fully assessing the SpaceX anomaly report.

Last week SpaceX announced a delay in resuming launches at Vandenberg until no earlier than January 2017.

“We are carefully assessing our designs, systems, and processes taking into account the lessons learned and corrective actions identified. Our schedule reflects the additional time needed for this assessment and implementation,” Larson elaborated.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Boeing has likewise significantly postponed their debut unpiloted and piloted launches of their CST-100 Starliner astronaut space taxi by more than six months this year alone.

The first crewed Boeing Starliner is now slated for a launch in August 2018, possibly several months after SpaceX. But the schedules keep changing so it’s anyone’s guess as to when these commercial crew launches will actually occur.

Another big issue that has cropped up since the Sept. 1 pad disaster, regards the procedures and timing for fueling the Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts on board. SpaceX is proposing to load the propellants with the crew already on board, unlike the practice of the past 50 years where the astronauts climbed aboard after the extremely dangerous fueling operation was completed.

SpaceX proposes this change due to their recent use of superchilled liquid oxygen and resulting new operational requirement to fuel the rocket in the last 30 minutes prior to liftoff.

Although a SpaceX hazard report outlining these changes was approved by NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July 2016, an objection was raised by former astronaut Maj. Gen. Thomas Stafford and the International Space Station Advisory Committee.

“SpaceX has designed a reliable fueling and launch process that minimizes the duration and number of personnel exposed to the hazards of launching a rocket,” Larson explained.

“As part of this process, the crew will safely board the Crew Dragon, ground personnel will depart, propellants will be carefully loaded and then the vehicle will launch. During this time the Crew Dragon launch abort system will be enabled.”

SpaceX says they have performed a detailed safety analysis with NASA of all potential hazards with this process.

“The hazard report documenting the controls was approved by NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July 2016.”

SpaceX representatives recently met with Stafford and the ISS review board to address their concerns, but the outcome and whether anything was resolved is not known.

“We recently met with Maj. Gen. Stafford and the International Space Station Advisory Committee to provide them detailed information on our approach and answer a number of questions. SpaceX and NASA will continue our ongoing assessment while keeping the committee apprised of our progress,” Larson explained.

The Falcon 9 fueling procedure issue relating to astronaut safety must be satisfactorily resolved before any human launch with Dragon can take place, and will be reported on further here.

Whenever the Crew Dragon does fly it will launch from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Launch Complex 39A – the former shuttle launch pad which SpaceX has leased from NASA.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX is currently renovating pad 39A for launches of manned Falcon 9/Dragon missions. And the firm has decided to use it for commercial missions as well while pad 40 is repaired following the pad accident.

This week a Falcon 9 first stage was spotted entering Cape Canaveral to prepare for an upcoming launch.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrives at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 12, 2016 for launch sometime in 2017. Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrives at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 12, 2016 for launch sometime in 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Getting our astronauts back to space with home grown technology is proving to be far more difficult and time consuming than anyone anticipated – despite the relative simplicity of developing capsule-like vehicles vs. NASA’s highly complex and hugely capable Space Shuttle vehicles.

And time is of the essence for the commercial crew program.

Because for right now, the only path to the ISS for all American astronauts is aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule through seats purchased by NASA – at about $82 million each. But NASA’s contract with Roscosmos for future flight opportunities runs out at the end of 2018. So there is barely a few months margin left before the last available contracted seat is taken.

It takes about 2 years lead time for Russia to build the Soyuz and NASA is not planning to buy any new seats.

So any further delays to SpaceX or Boeing could result in an interruption of US and partner flights to the ISS in 2019 – which is primarily American built.

Exterior of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX.
Exterior of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX.

Since its inception, the commercial crew program has been severely and shortsightedly underfunded by the US Congress. They have repeatedly cut the Administration’s annual budget requests, delaying forward progress and first crewed flights from 2015 to 2018, and forcing NASA to buy additional Soyuz seats from Russia at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX’s Space Coast Launch Facilities Escape Hurricane Matthew’s Wrath, May Resume Launches this Year

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX’s key launch facilities on the Florida Space Coast escaped the wrath of Hurricane Matthew’s 100 mph wind gusts late last week, suffering only some exterior damage to the satellite processing building, a company spokesman confirmed to Universe Today.

Furthermore, the aerospace firm still hopes to resume launches of their Falcon 9 rocket before the end of this year following September’s rocket explosion, according to remarks made by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell over the weekend.

“Hurricane Matthew caused some damage to the exterior of SpaceX’s payload processing facility [PPF] at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor told Universe Today.

The payload processing facility (PPF) is the facility where the satellites and payloads are processed to prepare them for flight and launches on the firm’s commercial Falcon 9 rockets.

Some exterior panels were apparently blown out by the storm.

The looming threat of a direct hit by the Category 4 storm Hurricane Matthew on Friday, Oct. 7, on Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) forced the closure of both facilities before the storm hit. They remained closed over the weekend except to emergency personal.

The deadly storm also caused some minor damage to the Kennedy Space Center and USAF facilities on the base.

Meanwhile competitor ULA also told me their facilities suffered only minor damage.

However the base closure will likely result in a few days launch delay of the ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather satellite to geostationary orbit, which had been slated for Nov. 4.

The PPF is located on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a few miles south of the Falcon 9 launch pad at Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40).

The PPF is inside the former USAF Solid Motor Assembly Building (SMAB) used for the now retired Titan IV rockets.

Fortunately, SpaceX has another back-up facility at pad 40 where technicians and engineers can work to prepare the rocket payload for flight.

“The company has a ready and fully capable back-up for processing payloads at its SLC-40 hangar annex building,” Taylor elaborated.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket venting prior to launch scrub for SES-9 communications satellite on Feb. 26, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on pad 40 with backup processing hanger visible, prior to launch of SES-9 communications satellite in March 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

And except for the minor damage to the PPF facility where payloads are processed, SpaceX says there was no other damage to infrastructure at pad 40 or to Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

“There was no damage the company’s facilities at Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center,” Taylor told me.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

However SLC-40 is not operational at this time, since it was heavily damaged during the Sept. 1 launch pad disaster when a Falcon 9 topped with the Israeli Amos-9 comsat exploded on the launch pad during a routine prelaunch fueling operation and a planned first stage static fire engine test.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As SpaceX was launching Falcon 9 rockets from pad 40, they have been simultaneously renovating and refurbishing NASA’s former shuttle launch pad at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) which they leased from NASA.

SpaceX plans to start launching their new Falcon Heavy booster from pad 39A in 2017 as well as human rated launches of the Falcon 9 with the Crew Dragon to the ISS.

However, following the pad 40 disaster, SpaceX announced plans to press pad 39A into service for commercial Falcon 9 satellite launches as well.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell recently said that the company hoped to resume launches in November while they search for a root cause to the pad 40 catastrophe – as I reported here.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 9 Shotwell indicated that investigators are making progress to determine the cause of the mishap.

“We’re homing in on what happened,” she said, according to a story by Space News. “I think it’s going to point not to a vehicle issue or an engineering design issue but more of a business process issue.”

Space News said that she did not elaborate further.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Big Breach In 2nd Stage Helium System Likely Triggered Catastrophic Falcon 9 Explosion: SpaceX

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

Investigators have determined that a “large breach” in the second stage helium system likely triggered the catastrophic Falcon 9 launch pad explosion that suddenly destroyed the rocket and Israeli commercial payload during a routine fueling test three weeks ago, SpaceX announced today, Friday, Sept. 23.

However, the root cause of the rupture and Sept. 1 disaster have not been determined, according to SpaceX, based on the results thus far discerned by the official accident investigation team probing the incident that forced an immediate halt to all SpaceX launches.

The Accident Investigation Team (AIT) is composed of SpaceX, the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and industry experts.

“At this stage of the investigation, preliminary review of the data and debris suggests that a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place,” SpaceX reported on the firm’s website in today’s anomaly update dated Sept. 23- the first in three weeks.

The helium system is used to pressurize the liquid oxygen tank from inside.

The explosion took place without warning at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex-40 launch facility at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT on Sept. 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, during a routine fueling test and engine firing test as liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants were being loade into the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9. Launch of the AMOS-6 comsat was scheduled two days later.

Indeed the time between the first indication of an anomaly to loss of signal was vanishingly short – only about “93 milliseconds” of elapsed time, SpaceX reported.

93 milliseconds amounts to less than 1/10th of a second. That conclusion is based on examining 3,000 channels of data.

SpaceX reported that investigators “are currently scouring through approximately 3,000 channels of engineering data along with video, audio and imagery.”

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016  after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload and damaged the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Both the $60 million SpaceX rocket and the $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli commercial communications satellite payload were completely destroyed in a massive fireball that erupted suddenly during the planned pre-launch fueling and hot fire engine ignition test at pad 40. There were no injuries since the pad had been cleared.

The Sept. 1 calamity also counts as the second time a Falcon 9 has exploded in 15 months and the second time it originated in the second stage and will call into question the rocket’s reliability.

The first failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion about two and a half minutes after liftoff, when a strut holding the helium tank inside the liquid oxygen tank failed in flight during the Dragon CRS-7 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author.

However SpaceX says that although both incidents involved the second stage, they are unrelated – even as they continue seeking to determine the root cause.

“All plausible causes are being tracked in an extensive fault tree and carefully investigated. Through the fault tree and data review process, we have exonerated any connection with last year’s CRS-7 mishap.”

And they are thoroughly reviewing all rocket components.

“At SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA, our manufacturing and production is continuing in a methodical manner, with teams continuing to build engines, tanks, and other systems as they are exonerated from the investigation.”

But SpaceX will have to conduct an even more thorough analysis of every aspect of their designs and manufacturing processes and supply chain exactly because the cause of this disaster is different and apparently went undetected during the CRS-7 accident review.

And before Falcon 9 launches are allowed to resume, the root cause must be determined, effective fixes must be identified and effective remedies must be verified and implemented.

Large scale redesign of the second stage helium system may be warranted since two independent failure modes have occurred. Others could potentially be lurking. It’s the job of the AIT to find out – especially because American astronauts will be flying atop this rocket to the ISS starting in 2017 or 2018 and their lives depend on its being reliable and robust.

After the last failure in June 2015, it took nearly six months before Falcon 9 launches were resumed.

Launches were able to recommence relatively quickly because the June 2015 disaster took place at altitude and there was no damage to pad 40.

That’s not the case with the Sept. 1 calamity where pad 40 suffered significant damage and will be out of action for quite a few months at least as the damage is catalogued and evaluated. Then a repair, refurbishment, testing and recertification plan needs to be completed to rebuild and return pad 40 to flight status. Furthermore SpaceX will have to manufacture a new transporter-erector.

Since the explosion showered debris over a wide area, searchers have been prowling surrounding areas and other nearby pads at the Cape and Kennedy Space Center, hunting for evidentiary remains that could provide clues or answers to the mystery of what’s at the root cause this time.

Searchers have recovered “the majority of debris from the incident has been recovered, photographed, labeled and catalogued, and is now in a hangar for inspection and use during the investigation.”

To date they have not found any evidence for debris beyond the immediate area of LC-40, the company said.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had previously reported via twitter that the rocket failure originated somewhere in the upper stage near the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank during fueling test operations at the launch pad, for what is known as a hot fire engine ignition test of all nine first stage Merlin 1D engines.

Engineers were in the final stages of loading the liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 kerosene propellants that power the Falcon 9 first stage for the static fire test which is a full launch dress rehearsal. The anomaly took place about 8 minutes before the planned engine hot fire ignition.

And the incident took place less than two days before the scheduled Falcon 9 launch of AMOS-6 on Sept. 3 from pad 40.

The explosion also caused extensive damage to the launch pad as well as to the rockets transporter erector, or strongback, that holds the rocket in place until minutes before liftoff, and ground support equipment (GSE) around the pad – as seen in my recent photos of the pad taken a week after the explosion during the OSIRIS-REx launch campaign.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Fortunately, many other pad areas and infrastructure survived intact or in “good condition.”

“While substantial areas of the pad systems were affected, the Falcon Support Building adjacent to the pad was unaffected, and per standard procedure was unoccupied at the time of the anomaly. The new liquid oxygen farm – e.g. the tanks and plumbing that hold our super-chilled liquid oxygen – was unaffected and remains in good working order. The RP-1 (kerosene) fuel farm was also largely unaffected. The pad’s control systems are also in relatively good condition.”

The rocket disaster was coincidentally captured as it unfolded in stunning detail in a spectacular up close video recorded by my space journalist colleague Mike Wagner at USLaunchReport.

Watch this video:

Video Caption: SpaceX – Static Fire Anomaly – AMOS-6 – 09-01-2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

Even as investigators and teams of SpaceX engineers sift through the data and debris looking for the root cause of the helium tank breach, other SpaceX engineering teams and workers prepare to restart launches from the other SpaceX pad on the Florida Space Coast- namely Pad 39A on the Kennedy Space Center.

So the ambitious aerospace firm is already setting its sights on a ‘Return to Flight’ launch as early as November of this year, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said on Sept. 13 at a French space conference.

“We’re anticipating getting back to flight, being down for about three months, so getting back to flight in November, the November timeframe,” Shotwell announced during a panel discussion at the World Satellite Business Week Conference in Paris, France – as reported here last week.

SpaceX reconfirmed the November target today.

“We will work to resume our manifest as quickly as responsible once the cause of the anomaly has been identified by the Accident Investigation Team.”

“Pending the results of the investigation, we anticipate returning to flight as early as the November timeframe.”

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As SpaceX was launching from pad 40, they have been simultaneously renovating and refurbishing NASA’s former shuttle launch pad at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) – from which the firm hopes to launch the new Falcon Heavy booster in 2017 as well as human rated launches of the Falcon 9 with the Crew Dragon to the ISS.

So now SpaceX will utilize pad 39A for commercial Falcon 9 launches as well. But much works remains to finish pad work as I recently witnessed.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Overview schematic of SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX
Overview schematic of SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Hopes for Falcon 9 Return to Flight in November; Shotwell

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Less than two weeks after a still mysterious launch pad explosion utterly destroyed a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during testing on Sept. 1, the bold and seemingly undaunted firm is already setting its sights on a ‘Return to Flight’ launch as early as November of this year, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said Tuesday.

“We’re anticipating getting back to flight, being down for about three months, so getting back to flight in November, the November timeframe,” Shotwell announced on Sept. 13, during a panel discussion at the World Satellite Business Week Conference being held in Paris, France.

The catastrophic Sept. 1 launch pad explosion took place without warning at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex-40 launch facility at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl during a routine fueling test.

Both the $60 million SpaceX rocket and the $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli commercial communications satellite payload were completely destroyed in a massive fireball that erupted suddenly during a routine and planned pre-launch fueling and engine ignition test at pad 40 on Sept. 1.

However, SpaceX is still seeking to determine the root cause of the catastrophe, which must be fully determined, corrected and rectified before any new Falcon 9 launches can actually occur.

Indeed nailing down the root cause has thus far confounded SpaceX investigators and was labeled as the “most difficult and complex failure” in its history said SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk in a series of update tweets on Sept. 9. He also sought the public’s help in ascertaining the elusive cause via any audio/video recordings.

The rocket failure originated somewhere in the upper stage near the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank during fueling test operations at the launch pad, for what is known as a hot fire engine ignition test of all nine first stage Merlin 1D engines, said Musk.

Engineers were in the final stages of loading the liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 kerosene propellants that power the Falcon 9 first stage for the static fire test which is a full launch dress rehearsal. The anomaly took place about 8 minutes before the planned engine hot fire ignition.

Shotwell also stated that the launch would occur from SpaceX’s other Florida Space Coast launch pad – namely the former Space Shuttle Launch Complex 39A on the Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX also operates a third launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“We would launch from the East Coast on Pad 39A in the November timeframe. And then Vandenberg would be available … for our other assorted customers,” Shotwell stated.

SpaceX has signed a long term lease with NASA to use Pad 39A.

Shotwell did not say which payload would be the first to launch.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The incident took place less than two days before the scheduled Falcon 9 launch of AMOS-6 on Sept. 3 from pad 40.

The Sept. 1 calamity disaster also counts as the second time a Falcon 9 has exploded in 15 months and will call into question the rocket’s reliability. The first failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion about two and a half minutes after liftoff, during the Dragon CRS-9 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author.

While launching from pad 40, SpaceX has simultaneously been renovating and refurbishing NASA’s former shuttle launch at Complex 39A – from which the firm hopes to launch the new Falcon Heavy booster as well as human rated launches of the Falcon 9 with the Crew Dragon to the ISS.

And now according to Shotwell, SpaceX is expanding the scope of operations at pad 39A and intends to use it for commercial Falcon 9 launches as well – while they work to complete repairs to pad 40 which suffered significant damage, as I witnessed and just reported here.

Ongoing work at Pad 39A was clearly visible to this author and other media this past week during NASA’s OSIRIS-REx launch campaign.

SpaceX will have to finish the pad 39A upgrades soon in order to have any hopes of achieving a November return to flight launch date, and a lot of work remains to be done. For example the shuttle era Rotating Service Structure (RSS) is still standing. The timing for its demolishment has not been announced, according to a source.

Prior to launching from 39A, SpaceX would presumably roll out a Falcon 9 rocket to conduct fit checks and conduct a full launch dress rehearsal and first stage static hot fire engine test to confirm that all the newly installed equipment, gear and fueling lines, pumps, etc. are fully functional, operational and safe.

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016  after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The rocket disaster was coincidentally captured as it unfolded in stunning detail in a spectacular up close video recorded by my space journalist colleague at USLaunchReport – shown below.

Here is the full video from my space journalist friend and colleague Mike Wagner of USLaunchReport:

Video Caption: SpaceX – Static Fire Anomaly – AMOS-6 – 09-01-2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 had been slated for an overnight blastoff on Saturday, September 3 at 3 a.m. from pad 40 with the 6 ton AMOS-6 telecommunications satellite valued at some $200 million.

The AMOS-6 communications satellite was built by Israel Aerospace Industries for Space Communication Ltd. It was planned to provide communication services including direct satellite home internet for Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

The Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 satellite were swiftly consumed in a huge fireball and thunderous blasts accompanied by a vast plume of smoke rising from the wreckage that was visible for many miles around the Florida Space Coast.

“Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation,” Musk tweeted several hours after the launch pad explosion.

“Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.”

The explosion also caused extensive damage to the rockets transporter erector, or strongback, that holds the rocket in place until minutes before liftoff, and ground support equipment (GSE) around the pad – as seen in my new photos of the pad taken a week after the explosion.

Dangling cables and gear such as pulley’s and more can clearly be seen to still be present as the strongback remains raised at pad 40. The strongback raises the rocket at the pad and also houses multiple umbilical line for electrical power, purge gases, computer communications and more.

One of the four lightning masts is also visibly burnt and blackened – much like what occurred after the catastrophic Orbital ATK Antares rocket exploded moments after liftoff from a NASA Wallops launch pad on Oct 28, 2014 and witnessed by this author.

Black soot also appears to cover some area of the pads ground support equipment in the new photos.

So it’s very likely that repairs to and re-certification of pad 40 will take at least several months.

Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The last successful SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from pad 40 took place on Aug. 14 with the JCSAT 16 Japanese telecom satellite.

The first stage from the JCSAT 16 launch was concurrently recovered with an amazing propulsive soft landing on the OCISLY droneship platform at sea.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

And Shotwell pointed to the numerous successful SpaceX launches in her conference remarks.

“So now let’s look to the good. We did have an extraordinary launch year. We launched 9 times in just under 8 months, in the past year successfully,” Shotwell elaborated.

Shotwell was referring to the upgraded, full thrust version of the Falcon 9 first launched in Dec. 2015

“We rolled out a new vehicle, which we flew last December. And that vehicle was the vehicle that was designed to land.”

“And so we did recover the first stage six times. Twice back on land. And four times on the droneship. Which I think is an extraordinary move for the industry.”

“I don’t know that everyone appreciates it, but certainly that is a leap forward in launches for our customers.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing  rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Indeed, just 2 days before the launch pad explosion, SpaceX signed the first contract ever to utilize one of their recycled and ‘flight-proven rockets to launch the SES-10 telecom satellite for Luxembourg based SES.

SpaceX has a huge manifest of contracted missions and is backlogged with approximately 70 launches worth over $10 billion.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This recovered 156-foot-tall (47-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage has arrived back into Port Canaveral, FL after successfully launching JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s VAB in the background - as seen from Exploration Tower on Aug. 19.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This recovered 156-foot-tall (47-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage has arrived back into Port Canaveral, FL after successfully launching JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s VAB in the background – as seen from Exploration Tower on Aug. 19. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

2 By Sea, 1 By Land, 3rd Recovered Booster Joins SpaceX Siblings: Up Close Gallery

Composite image of first stage booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.  Inset: Trio of SpaceX boosters inside pad 39A hangar. Credit: SpaceX.  Composite:  Ken Kremer
Composite image of first stage booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace. Inset: Trio of SpaceX boosters inside pad 39A hangar. Credit: SpaceX. Composite: Ken Kremer

Rolling rolling rolling! Yee-haw!

2 By Sea, 1 By Land. The 3rd recovered Falcon 9 booster has joined her siblings inside SpaceX’s gleaming new processing hangar, laying side-by-side at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

What was once unfathomable science fiction has turned into science fact.

In the space of 5 short months, SpaceX has recovered three of the company’s spent Falcon 9 first stage boosters following successful rocket delivery launches to orbit for NASA and commercial customers.

The trio of landings count as stunning successes towards SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk’s vision of rocket reusability and radically slashing the cost of sending rockets to space by recovering the boosters and eventually reflying them with new payloads from paying customers.

Over the weekend, the latest Falcon 9 booster recovered after nailing a spectacular middle-of-the-night touchdown on a sea based platform, was transported horizontally from a work site at Port Canaveral to the SpaceX rocket processing hanger at pad 39A at KSC.

Check out the extensive gallery of up close photos/videos herein of the boosters travels along the long and winding road from the port to KSC from my space photographer friends Jeff Seibert and Julian Leek. As well as booster trio hangar photos from SpaceX.

“Three’s company,” tweeted SpaceX’s Elon Musk, after the third booster met the first two inside the pad 39A hangar.

Video caption: Close-up video of SpaceX JCSAT-14 Falcon 9 booster rolls to SpaceX hanger at Pad 39A after removal from the drone ship where it landed on May 6th. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The 156 foot tall booster safely soft landed on the tiny drone ship named “Of Course I Still Love You” or “OCISLY” barely nine minutes after liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 a week and a half ago on a mission to deliver the Japanese JCSAT-14 telecom satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

The upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 soared to orbit on May 6, roaring to life with 1.5 million pounds of thrust on a mission carrying the JCSAT-14 commercial communications satellite, following an on time nighttime liftoff at 1:21 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

The used first stage then carried out an intricate propulsive soft landing on the waiting ocean going platform located some 400 miles off the east coast of Florida.

The booster was then towed into the Florida space coast at Port Canaveral where it was removed from the barge, defueled and had its four landing legs removed.

Thereafter it was tilted and lowered horizontally and placed onto the multi-wheeled transport for shipment back to SpaceX launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center.

First stage booster with landing legs removed from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
First stage booster with landing legs removed from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

The newly recovered first stage joins the fleet of two others recovered last December and in April.

“May need to increase size of rocket storage hangar,” tweeted Musk.

3 landed SpaceX rockets in hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.  Credit: SpaceX
3 landed SpaceX rockets in hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

To date SpaceX has recovered 3 Falcon 9 first stages – 2 by sea and 1 by at land. But this was the first one to be recovered from the much more demanding, high velocity trajectory delivering a satellite to GTO.

The first rocket was flying faster and at a higher altitude at the time of separation from the second stage and thus was much more difficult to slow down and maneuver back to the ocean based platform.

Musk and SpaceX officials had openly doubted a successful outcome for this landing attempt.

Nevertheless it all worked out spectacularly as seen live at the time via the SpaceX launch and landing webcast.

However, the booster and the Merlin 1D first stage engines did sustain heavy damage as seen in the up close photos and acknowledged by Musk.

“Most recent rocket took max damage, due to v high entry velocity. Will be our life leader for ground tests to confirm others are good,” Musk tweeted.

So although this cannot be reflown, it still serves another great purpose for engineers seeking to determining the longevity of booster and its various components.

Apparent cracks in the recovered booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch seen in this up close view revealing damage due to high velocity launch and touchdown on droneship at sea.  Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
The recovered booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch seen in this up close view revealing possible damage due to high velocity launch and touchdown on droneship at sea. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

“A few pictures show some signs of distress, this obviously was a rough re-entry,” Seibert told Universe Today.

Damage to the booster may be visible. Looking at the Falcon 9s Merlin 1D engines arranged in an octoweb configuration, the center engine appears to be held in place with restraining straps.

“It looks like the octoweb area may have been breached due to the high entry energy. It appears that for some reason, they are supporting the center Merlin engine for transport. They may be some burn through below the orange strap holding up the center engine.”

Apparent damage around Merlin 1D engines at base of recovered booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch seen in this up close view showing straps around center engine.  Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
Apparent damage around Merlin 1D engines at base of recovered booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch seen in this up close view showing straps around center engine. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Musk says the next SpaceX commercial launch is tentatively slated for late May – watch for my onsite reports.

Blastoff of the first reflown booster could follow sometime this summer.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Booster move gallery:

Recovered first stage booster after SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch rolls into Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered first stage booster after SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch rolls into Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
Base of recovered first stage booster with 9 Merlin 1D engines covered, after SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch, rolls into Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016.
Base of recovered first stage booster with 9 Merlin 1D engines covered and landing legs removed, after SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch, rolls into Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
9 Merlin 1D engines powered the recovered first stage from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch, rolls to SpaceX hanger at Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016.  Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
9 Merlin 1D engines powered the recovered first stage from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch, rolls to SpaceX hanger at Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
Up close look at grid fins from recovered first stage booster after SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch during transport to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
Up close look at grid fins from recovered first stage booster after SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch during transport to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
3 landed SpaceX rockets in hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.  Credit: SpaceX
3 landed SpaceX rockets in hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: SpaceX
First stage booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
First stage booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
First stage booster with landing legs removed from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
First stage booster with landing legs removed from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
Up close look at top of recovered first stage booster after SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch during transport to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
Up close look at top of recovered first stage booster after SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch during transport to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
Scorched skin and US flag on recovered SpaceX first stage booster during roll  to SpaceX hanger at Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016.  Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
Scorched skin and US flag on recovered SpaceX first stage booster during roll to SpaceX hanger at Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
First stage booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
First stage booster from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace
SpaceX Crew Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida  for missions to the International Space Station. Pad 39A is  undergoing modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility (right) has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX Crew Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for missions to the International Space Station. Pad 39A is undergoing modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility (right) has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Video Caption: 20X time-lapse of the first stage booster from the SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch being transferred on May 10, 2016 from the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” (OCISLY) to a work pedestal on land 12 hours after arriving at the dock. Credit: Jeff Seibert

SpaceX Leases Historic Launch Complex 39A from NASA for new Era of Commercial Space Launches

The keys to NASA’s historic launch Pad 39A that propelled humanity’s first man to walk on the Moon – Neil Armstrong – during the history making flight of Apollo 11, have been handed over to new owners, namely the private aerospace firm SpaceX for a new purpose – serving as a commercial launch facility.

NASA and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., have just signed an agreement giving SpaceX rights to occupy and operate seaside Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

SpaceX was founded by billionaire, entrepreneur and space visionary Elon Musk.

SpaceX aims to give the now dormant pad a new lease on life in the emerging New Space era by revitalizing it as a commercial launch site for the company’s mammoth new Falcon Heavy rocket, currently under development, as well as for manned launches of the firm’s human rated Dragon spacecraft atop the Falcon 9 according to Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

“We’ll make great use of this pad, I promise,” Shotwell told reporters at a briefing at the pad.

The liquid fueled Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in the world according to SpaceX, generating generating nearly four million pounds of liftoff thrust from 27 engines and thus significantly exceeding the power of the Delta IV Heavy manufactured by competitor United Launch Alliance.

Shotwell said renovations to pad 39A would start later this year. The maiden SpaceX launch from the complex is expected next year.

“We will launch the Falcon Heavy from here from this pad early next year,” Shotwell stated.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, left, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana announce that NASA just signed a lease agreement with SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., for use and operation of Launch Complex 39A. Credit: Nicole Solomon
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, left, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana announce that NASA just signed a lease agreement with SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., for use and operation of Launch Complex 39A. Credit: Nicole Solomon

The SpaceX Dragon is one of three commercial crew vehicles being developed under a public-private partnership with NASA to ferry US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and restore America’s human spaceflight capability lost since the shuttle’s retirement.

The Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser are also vying for the next round of private ‘space taxi’ funding from NASA.

Pad 39A has been inactive and mothballed since the last shuttle mission, STS-135, thundered to space in July 2011.

Not a single rocket has rolled up the ramp at KSC in nearly 3 years.

NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier.
Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The new lease agreement was signed by NASA and SpaceX officials and announced onsite at Pad 39 at the briefing.

“Today this historic site from which numerous Apollo and space shuttle missions began and from which I first flew and left the planet on STS-61C on Columbia, is beginning a new mission as a commercial launch site,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“While SpaceX will use pad 39A at Kennedy, about a mile away on pad 39B, we’re preparing for our deep space missions to an asteroid and eventually Mars. The parallel pads at Kennedy perfectly exemplify NASA’s parallel path for human spaceflight exploration — U.S. commercial companies providing access to low-Earth orbit and NASA deep space exploration missions at the same time.”

Under terms of the new agreement with NASA, the lease with SpaceX spans 20 years.

“It’s exciting that this storied NASA launch pad is opening a new chapter for space exploration and the commercial aerospace industry,” said Bolden.

SpaceX will also maintain and operate Pad 39A at its own expense, with no US federal funding from NASA.

Pad 39A will be SpaceX’s third launch site. The company also launches its Falcon 9 rockets from nearby Pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and a west coast pad on Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Launch Pad 39A has lain dormant save dismantling since the final shuttle launch on the STS-135 mission in July 2011.  Not a single rocket has rolled up this ramp in nearly 3 years. SpaceX has now leased Pad 39A from NASA and American rockets will thunder aloft again with Falcon rocket boosters starting in 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch Pad 39A has lain dormant save dismantling since the final shuttle launch on the STS-135 mission in July 2011. Not a single rocket has rolled up this ramp at the Kennedy Space Center in nearly 3 years. SpaceX has now leased Pad 39A from NASA and American rockets will thunder aloft again with Falcon rocket boosters starting in 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The next Falcon 9 liftoff with an unmanned Dragon cargo freighter is currently slated from Friday, April 18 following Monday’s scrub.

NASA determined that the agency no longer has a use for pad 39A since the end of the shuttle era and has been looking for a new tenant to take over responsibility and pay for maintenance of the launch complex. The agency awarded the lease to SpaceX in December 2013.

Instead, NASA decided to completely upgrade, renovate and modernize Pad 39As twin, namely Launch Pad 39B, and invested in converting it into a 21st Century launch complex.

NASA will use Pad 39B to launch the state of the art Orion crew vehicle atop the new Space Launch System (SLS) booster for voyages beyond Earth and taking humans back to the vicinity of the Moon and further out on deep space missions to Asteroids, Mars and beyond.

The first unmanned SLS test flight from Pad 39B is slated for late 2017.

Pad 39A was an active NASA launch pad for nearly 35 years starting back near the dawn of the Space Age in the 1960s.

Apollo 4, the first flight of a Saturn V launch vehicle, rises from Launch Pad 39A. Credit: NASA
Apollo 4, the first flight of a Saturn V launch vehicle, rises from Launch Pad 39A. Credit: NASA

Apollo 4 was the first NASA booster to blast off from Pad 39A on Nov. 9, 1967 during the historic inaugural test flight of the Saturn V moon rocket that eventually served to dispatch all six US manned lunar landing missions.

The closing NASA use of Pad 39A took place on July 8, 2011 with the launch of STS-135 and orbiter Atlantis on the final flight of the space shuttle era.

The four person STS-135 crew delivered the last US pressurized module to the massive low-Earth orbiting ISS.

No Americans have launched to space from American soil since STS-135.

Launch Complex 39 was originally constructed to launch the Apollo moon landing missions atop NASA’s Saturn V booster in the 1960s and 1970s. Both pads were later modified to support the Space Shuttle program whose first launch took place in 1981 from pad 39A.

“Kennedy Space Center is excited to welcome SpaceX to our growing list of partners,” Center Director Bob Cabana said. “As we continue to reconfigure and repurpose these tremendous facilities, it is gratifying to see our plan for a multi-user spaceport shared by government and commercial partners coming to fruition.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, celebrates lease agreement for use and operation of NASA’s KSC Launch Complex 39A in Florida. Credit: Nicole Solomon
Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, celebrates lease agreement for use and operation of NASA’s KSC Launch Complex 39A in Florida. Credit: Nicole Solomon