SpaceX is building a towering new gantry at Kennedy Space Center’s Complex 39A to launch its 394-foot-tall Super Heavy Starship rocket, but NASA said Thursday it would not grant permission to fly until it assessed the potential threats to a nearby pad used to send astronauts to the space station.
The new gantry and launch pad will be built within about 1,000 feet of NASA’s original 39A firing range, now leased by SpaceX, where Falcon 9 rockets take off and carry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.
Reuters reported last week that NASA executives are concerned about the possibility of a catastrophic failure at or just above the new Starship pad, seriously damaging Falcon 9 launch infrastructure and disrupting SpaceX astronaut flights to the space station aboard Crew Dragon capsules could.
“We all know that an early failure like one of the early SpaceX flights would be pretty devastating for 39A,” NASA space operations chief Kathy Lueders told Reuters.
She was believed to be referring to an explosion on the pad in 2016 that destroyed a Falcon 9 and its communications satellite payload, severely damaging Launch Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The Super Heavy spaceship takes this threat to another level.
The next-generation, fully reusable rocket will tip the scales at around £11million and will be the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever built. burning Raptor engines.
Carrying astronauts, cargo, or both, the 160-foot-tall Starship upper stage is powered by six Raptors. An upper stage variant is being developed under a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to serve as the first lunar lander in the agency’s Artemis program.
SpaceX repaired and modernized Launch Complex 40 after the 2016 mishap and operates a third Falcon 9 pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. But none of these facilities are equipped to launch Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Boeing’s Starliner capsule, which is scheduled to be launched from a crew-ready platform at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, is not yet certified for operational use, and NASA considers Complex 39A critical to the ongoing operations of the space station.
In response to a request from CBS News, NASA confirmed the Reuters story and said SpaceX still has not received permission to launch from the 39A complex as of Thursday.
“In the coming weeks, NASA and SpaceX will conduct a thorough review to ensure safe operations at the pad and to assess redundant launch capabilities for NASA crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station,” NASA said in a statement.
“As part of the review, NASA and SpaceX are reviewing all available options, including the development of crew transport capacity at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.”
Pad 40 does not currently have a portal and SpaceX would need extensive modifications and upgrades to add access to a Crew Dragon on a Falcon 9, allow for last minute cargo additions and provide emergency egress capabilities.
As for the Super Heavy Starship, SpaceX has already built a platform in Boca Chica, Texas, where the company plans to begin orbit flight testing soon. It is in the process of building a second Starship pad at 39A, using massive open grid segments to be stacked on top of each other using a giant crane.
The first of eight portal segments was shipped to the complex last week and a second was installed early Thursday.
The NASA statement said the agency is “responsible for ensuring SpaceX’s compliance with the ownership agreement requirements for use of Launch Complex 39A.”
“These requirements include design, safety and environmental requirements,” the statement said. “At this point, NASA has only given approval to build. Additional hazard, operational impact, and maintainability reviews are required prior to any launch.”
And as with all launches from US soil, SpaceX requires a license from the Federal Aviation Administration.
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