SpaceX Resuming Launches from Damaged Pad 40 on Dec. 4 with Station Resupply Flight for NASA; Covert Zuma Remains on Hold

SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 was the last International Space Station resupply mission to lift off successfully from pad 40 on July 18, 2016, prior to the Cape Canaveral, FL, launch pad explosion with the Amos-6 payload that heavily damaged the pad and infrastructure on Sept. 1, 2016. Cargo launches for NASA will resume with Dragon CRS-13 in December 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – After postponing last week’s liftoff of the covert ‘Zuma’ spy satellite due to last minute concerns about the reliability of the payload fairing encapsulating it while poised for liftoff at KSC pad 39, SpaceX is set to at last resume launches from their previously damaged and now repaired Cape Canaveral pad 40 with a cargo resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) on Dec 4.

NASA and SpaceX have jointly decided to move forward with the Dragon CRS-13 cargo blastoff apparently because the mission does not involve use of the problematical payload fairing that halted last weeks planned Falcon 9 launch with the rocket and the mysterious Zuma payload.

Zuma was ready and waiting at pad 39A for the GO to launch that never came.

Then after a series of daily delays SpaceX ultimately announced a ‘stand down’ for super secret Zuma at pad 39A on Friday, Nov. 17, for the foreseeable future.

SpaceX engineers also had to deal with the after effects of a fire that broke out on a Merlin engine test stand during preparations for a hot fire test that resulted from a leak during a ‘LOX drop’ that halted testing of the Block 5 version of the Merlin 1D.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff of clandestine Zuma spysat to low earth orbit for a classified US government customer is postponed indefinitely from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, from last targeted launch date of 17 Nov 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Since SpaceX’s gumdrop shaped Dragon cargo freighter launches as a stand alone aerodynamically shielded spacecraft atop the Falcon 9, it does not require additional protection from atmospheric forces and friction housed inside a nose cone during ascent to orbit unlike satellites with many unprotected exposed surfaces, critical hardware and delicate instruments.

Thus Dragon is deemed good to go since there currently appear to be no other unresolved technical issues with the Falcon 9 rocket.

“NASA commercial cargo provider SpaceX is targeting its 13th commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station for no earlier than 2:53 p.m. EST Monday, Dec. 4,” NASA announced on the agency blog and social media accounts.

The Dec. 4 launch date for Dragon CRS-13 was announced by NASA’s space station manager Dan Hartman during the Orbital ATK Antares/Cygnus launch campaign that culminated with a successful blastoff last Sunday, Nov 12 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

But the targeted Dec 4 liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, was cast in doubt after SpaceX disclosed the payload fairing issue related launch delay on Friday.

Since last week SpaceX engineers have been busy taking the time to carefully scrutinize all the pertinent fairing data before proceeding with the top secret Zuma launch.

“We have decided to stand down and take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer,” said SpaceX spokesman John Taylor last Friday.

Covert Zuma spysat is encapsulated inside the nose cose at the top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in this up-close view from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, taken on Nov. 17, 2017. An unresolved issue with the nose cone caused indefinite launch postponement. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

All of SpaceX’s launches this year from Florida’s Spaceport have taken place from NASA’s historic Launch Complex-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

Pad 39A became SpaceX’s only operational Florida Space Coast launch pad following a catastrophic launch pad accident last year on Sept. 1, 2016 that took place during a routine fueling test that suddenly ended in a devastating explosion and fire that completely consumed the Falcon 9 rocket and Amos-6 payload and heavily damaged the pad and support infrastructure.

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

Since the Amos-6 accident workers raced to finish refurbishments to NASA’s long dormant pad 39A to transform into operational status and successfully launched a dozen missions this year.

Simultaneously additional crews have been hard at work to repair damaged pad 40 so that flights can resume there as soon as possible for the bulk of NASA, commercial and military contracted missions.

Meanwhile SpaceX wants to upgrade pad 39A to launch the Falcon Heavy and crewed Dragon flight. But those launches cant take place until pad 40 resumes operational status.

The Dragon CRS-13 mission was recently announced as the maiden mission for the reopening of pad 40.

Altogether Dragon CRS-13 will count as the fourth SpaceX Dragon liftoff of 2017.

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-13 vessel will carry about 3 tons of science and supplies to the orbiting outpost and stay about 4 weeks.

It will be a reused Dragon that previously flew on the CRS-6 mission.

“The Dragon [CRS-13] spacecraft will spend about a month attached to the space station,” NASA said.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket goes erect to launch position atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 1 Jun 2017 as seen the morning before later afternoon launch from inside from the pad perimeter. Liftoff of the CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) slated for 1 June 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The prior Dragon CRS-12 resupply ship launched from pad 39A on Aug. 14, 2017 from KSC pad 39A and carried more than 6,400 pounds ( 2,900 kg) of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex.

Dragon CRS-9 was the last ISS resupply mission to launch from pad 40 on July 18, 2016.

The recently arrived Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship is expected to depart the station from the Earth facing Unity node on Dec. 3 to make way for Dragon’s berthing at the Harmony node.

Orbital ATK Antares rocket blasts off from the ‘On-Ramp’ to the International Space Station on Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus OA-8 cargo spacecraft from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of SpaceX CRS-13, Zuma and KoreaSat-5A & Orbital ATK OA-8 Cygnus and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

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

Busy Space Coast December Ahead as SpaceX Reactivates Damaged Cape Launch Pad, Aims for Year End Maiden Falcon Heavy Blastoff

An artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy has 3 engine cores, each one containing 9 Merlin engines. Image: SpaceX
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A very busy and momentous December is ahead for SpaceX workers on Florida’s Space Coast as the company plans to reactivate the firms heavily damaged pad 40 at Cape Canaveral for a NASA resupply mission liftoff in early December while simultaneously aiming for a Year End maiden launch of the oft delayed Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s historic pad 39A.

NASA and SpaceX announced that the next SpaceX commercial cargo resupply services mission to the International Space Station (ISS) will launch from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida in December.

The Falcon Heavy, once operational, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Credit: SpaceX

The launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the SpaceX Dragon CRS-13 cargo freighter to the orbiting outpost for NASA will be the first this year from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida. It could come as soon as Dec. 4

Pad 40 was severely damaged on Sept. 1, 2016 during a catastrophic launch pad explosion of the Falcon 9 during a fueling test that concurrently completely consumed the Israeli AMOS-6 communications satellite bolted on top of the second stage during the planned static hot fire test.

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

Since Sept. 2016, all SpaceX launches from Florida have taken place from NASA’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) on the Kennedy Space Center.

The first Falcon 9 launch from pad 39A took place this year in Feb. 2017. And all hot fire tests have been conducted minus the expensive payload on top to keep them safe in case of a repeat explosion.

A successful restoration of pad 40 for launch services is one of the critical prerequisites that must be achieved before paving the path to the inaugural blastoff of SpaceX’s triple barreled Falcon Heavy booster from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Blastoff of SpaceX Dragon CRS12 on its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

So if all goes well, SpaceX will have two operational launch pads at Florida’s Spaceport- one at KSC and one at the Cape. They also have a pad in California at Vandenberg AFB.

Thus SpaceX could ramp up their already impressive 2017 launch pace of 16 rocket launches so far through the end of October.

Indeed SpaceX plans another 4 or 5 launches over the final two months of this year.

An artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Image: SpaceX
An artist’s illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Image: SpaceX

SpaceX is targeting late December for liftoff of the mammoth Falcon Heavy on its debut flight – to achieve CEO Elon Musk’s stated goal of launching Falcon Heavy in 2017.

The Falcon Heavy launch could come around Dec. 29, sources say.

But the late December Falcon Heavy launch date is dependent on placing pad 40 back in service with a fully successful NASA cargo mission, finishing upgrades to pad 39A for the Heavy as well as completing the rocket integration of three Falcon 9 cores and launch pad preparations.

Furthermore, SpaceX engineers must carry out a successful static fire test of the Falcon Heavy sporting a total of 27 Merlin 1 D engines – 9 engines apiece from each of the three Falcon 9 cores.

Both of the Falcon 9 side cores will be outfitted with nose cones on top in place of a payload and they have been spotted by myself and others being processed inside the huge processing hanger just outside the pad 39A perimeter fence at the bottom of the ramp.

Both of the side cores are also recycled boosters that will be launched for the second time each.

SpaceX originally hoped to launch Falcon Heavy in 2013, said Musk. But he also said the task was way more challenging then originally believed during a KSC post launch press conference in March 2017 following the first reuse of a liquid fueled booster during the SES-10 mission for SES that launch from pad 39A.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk and SES CTO Martin Halliwell exuberantly shake hands of congratulation following the successful delivery of SES-10 TV comsat to orbit using the first reflown and flight proven booster in world history at the March 30, 2017 post launch media briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Former Space Shuttle and Apollo Saturn Launch Pad 39A was only reactivated this year by SpaceX for Falcon 9 launches.

SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with KoreaSat-5A commercial telecomsat atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, on Halloween eve 30 Oct 2017. As seen from the crawlerway. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

SpaceX most recently launched the KoreaSat-5A telecomsat on Oct. 30 from pad 39A.

Plus the first stage booster was successfully recovered after a soft landing on a platform at sea and the booster floated ‘back in town’ last Thursday – as I witnessed and reported here.

Recovered SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch is towed into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL atop OCISLY droneship to flocks of birds and onlookers as Atlantic Ocean waves crash onshore at sunset Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The uncrewed Dragon cargo spacecraft launch on the CRS-13 mission is also a recycled Dragon. It previously was flown on SpaceX’s sixth commercial resupply mission to station for NASA.

Rocket recycling is a feat straight out of science fiction. It’s the key part of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk oft stated goal of drastically slashing the high cost of access to space.

Chart comparing SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX

The next SpaceX launch is set for Nov. 15 with the mysterious Zuma payload for a US government customer. It will be the last from pad 39A before the Falcon Heavy.

An Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship is slated to launch on November 11 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NASA mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 set to deliver JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 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