SpaceX’s Old and Improved Launch Pad Re-Opens for Business

The rocket company turns a tragedy into an opportunity.

The way it was: SLC-40, a U.S. Air Force pad dating back to the 1960s, looked like this before SpaceX improved it over the last year. New pictures of the complex have not been released, due to worries about photographing militarily sensitive hardware. (SpaceX)
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SpaceX would never say a September 2016 explosion that knocked Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) out of service for more than a year was a good thing. But following a 10-month, $50 million upgrade, the 1960s-era launch pad is scheduled to enter service again on Friday [note updated launch day], in much better shape than it’s been since the rocket company leased it from the Air Force a decade ago.

John Muratore, the ex-NASA manager who now heads SpaceX’s operations at SLC-40, gave a rundown for reporters last week on all the work the company has put into modernizing the pad. “We dusted ourselves off after the accident,” said Muratore, and mapped out where the explosion damage had been worst. Anything that could be moved out of the blast zone, or placed behind protective concrete and steel, was. A water system under the flame trench was improved so that SpaceX can test fire engines on the pad for longer periods than it could before, a key to its strategy of re-flying used hardware, and launching frequently. SLC-40 will be able to handle a launch a week, said Muratore, although SpaceX doesn’t currently have that many flights on its schedule.

Most of the improvements were done in the name of safety, he said, although “the safer the pad is, the more operationally efficient it is.” The fixes to SLC-40 stressed commonality with SpaceX’s two other leased pads—39A at Cape Canaveral and another one at Vandenberg AFB in California—thus enabling people and equipment to move easily from one location to another. Muratore said that this is the first time anyone has brought three new launch pads online in the same year. SpaceX will use Pad 39A, from which NASA launched Apollo and Shuttle missions, for its yet-to-debut Falcon Heavy rocket and for crewed Dragon launches to the space station.

Launch of the CRS-13 Dragon supply craft to the station is scheduled for 10:35 a.m. on Friday [note updated launch time], and will be aired live on NASA TV.

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