SpaceX Cape Canaveral test fire will open doors to higher launch rate


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Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range, talks about SpaceX’s two operational pads.

SpaceX is expected to test fire a Falcon 9 rocket at its Cape Canaveral pad as soon as Saturday, marking the first time the complex has seen flames since 2016 and officially launching the company’s era of two functioning pads at Florida’s spaceport.

Teams will conduct the routine static test fire, or short firing of the rocket’s nine Merlin main engines, ahead of next Friday’s planned launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40 – the pad’s first since it was damaged in a test fire explosion in September 2016.

Aside from bringing the pad back online, a successful launch will signal the beginning of SpaceX’s two-pad era at the Eastern Range, which encompasses Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The California-based company leases Launch Complex 40 from the Air Force and KSC’s pad 39A, which is currently being modified to handle launches of its three-core Falcon Heavy rocket, from NASA.

Having two functioning pads will translate to more opportunities for the company that launches mostly commercial missions, and it fits within CEO Elon Musk’s statements earlier this year about using pad 39A for Falcon Heavy missions and Launch Complex 40 for the Falcon 9.

[Air Force: Budget uncertainty threatens Cape Canaveral rocket launches]

[Launch of SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from KSC delayed to 2018]

For Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range, the pad’s reconstruction puts the Space Coast on the path to securing more launches – potentially up to 48 a year starting as early as 2020. Other launch providers, including United Launch Alliance and, later, Blue Origin, are expected to drive the annual count up, too.

“It gives flexibility to SpaceX and our ability to support them by having access to both pads,” Monteith told FLORIDA TODAY. “This allows them to re-energize the Falcon Heavy effort by focusing on just 39A.”

If the company were to suffer another failure at the pad, however, Monteith believes hardening and improved infrastructure would mean diminished effects and possibly a faster return to flight.

“I believe if they had another catastrophic failure like that, they would be able to get back to operations on an order of magnitude quicker than they’ve been able to bring pad 40 back online this time,” he said, noting that SpaceX might be able to return to flight within two months in the event of a similar failure.

Monteith, who regularly visits launch pads, said improvements to Launch Complex 40 include protection of hardware with steel and concrete casings as well as a transition to underground infrastructure.

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Further on the horizon, two launches in one day could be a possibility for SpaceX, Monteith said, “but it wasn’t possible from just a single pad.”

“If SpaceX wants to launch twice in a day next year, I’ll be ready to support them twice in a day,” he said. “I believe it is absolutely doable.”

In the short term, however, he said having two launch pads gives SpaceX the flexibility to launch every week, if necessary.

Next Friday’s 1:20 p.m. Falcon 9 launch will take a Dragon spacecraft packed with thousands of pounds of cargo and supplies for the International Space Station and marks the first time NASA will use a previously flown booster. And that booster will be the source of a thunderous sonic boom as it descends toward Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1 shortly after liftoff.

Also this month, teams are expected to test fire the highly anticipated, 27-engine Falcon Heavy rocket, which will open the company’s manifest to new payloads thanks to the vehicle’s upgraded launch capacity.

A company spokesperson confirmed that SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Aviation Week teams were targeting before the end of the year for the test fire and a premiere flight “a couple weeks right after that.”

“I think if they launch in January, that’s exceptionally successful, particularly since they had to delay work on pad 39A,” Monteith said. “If nothing else, SpaceX has proven to me that they can make the seemingly impossible happen.”

Contact Emre Kelly at [email protected] or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook at @EmreKelly.

Launch Friday, Dec. 8

  • Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9
  • Mission: ISS resupply for NASA
  • Launch Time: 1:20 p.m.
  • Launch Window: Instantaneous
  • Launch Complex: 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
  • Weather: Forecast expected next week

Join FloridaToday.com/Space at noon Friday, Dec. 8, for countdown chat and updates, including streaming of NASA’s launch webcast.

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