KAHULUI, Hawaii — As SpaceX prepares to launch a new crew to the International Space Station from a pad at the Kennedy Space Center, it is starting work to upgrade another pad at Cape Canaveral as a backup.
NASA and SpaceX completed the Oct. 3 launch readiness review for the Crew-5 mission, which is currently scheduled to launch at 12 p.m. east of October 5 from Launch Complex 39A. The mission will send NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina to the ISS for up to six months.
In an Oct. 3 briefing, Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said the agency and SpaceX were working on three “open items” before launch, including replacing a thrust vectoring controller on one of the Merlin engines of the Falcon 9, repairing a leak in a fire extinguisher on the Dragon spacecraft and working on a communications issue that was affecting the ability of a SpaceX droneship to maintain position, supporting the landing of the Falcon 9 booster.
None of the issues were “protective” of a launch, Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said during the briefing. The weather is forecast to be favorable for the launch, with a 90% chance of acceptable conditions at the launch site, but a “moderate” risk of adverse weather along the ascent runway due to the remnants of Hurricane Ian.
The launch, like all previous Crew Dragon missions, will be carried out by the LC-39A. But as SpaceX continues to work to host Starship launches from the same complex, company officials said they are also beginning work to host cargo and crew launches from Space Launch Complex 40 at the neighboring Cape Canaveral Space Station.
In a Sept. 26 briefing, Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president of manufacturing and flight reliability, said the company had already begun preparations for upgrades needed to SLC-40 for cargo and crew launches. “We’ve already started work to start preparations for pad 40. We’ve ordered some hardware, put some contracts in place,” he said.
He did not elaborate on the work required to prepare the SLC-40 for cargo and crew missions. “We’ll load first. We can do that quite easily,” he said. “It gives us some flexibility to move certain things out of the 39A, which helps us balance the launches from both pads. We will add crew at the appropriate time.”
SpaceX initially launched Dragon cargo missions from SLC-40. However, when the company moved to the second-generation Dragon truck, based on the Crew Dragon spacecraft, all of these launches were transferred to the LC-39A, which has a fuselage and crew access leg to provide access to the spacecraft until shortly before launch .
The effort to build crew and cargo capacity on SLC-40 is being driven by SpaceX’s work to host the Starship launched on LC-39A. As this vehicle has yet to make its first orbital launch attempt, NASA has expressed concerns that a Starship launch failure on LC-39A could damage the existing launch infrastructure there and affect NASA’s ability to send cargo and crews to ISS.
“We are beginning to monitor the activities on Pad 39A in relation to Starship,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, noting that it came up during the flight readiness inspection that took place before the Sept. 26 briefing. “We are looking at options to have a crew capacity of 40.” He later said that NASA was following SpaceX’s plans “every step of the way.”
Gerstenmaier said that while construction is underway on LC-39A to accommodate Starship launches, there will be no upcoming launches of that vehicle from the pad. “Our goal is to bring Starship to 39A since we have a reliable vehicle. We will do a series of tests in Boca [Chica] to make sure the vehicle is ready to go. When we believe we have a good and reliable vehicle, we will bring it to 39A.”
It is unclear when a “good and reliable” Starship will be ready to fly from LC-39A. SpaceX has continued testing Starship prototypes at its Boca Chica, Texas test site, including static fire tests of the Starship vehicle and its Super Heavy booster, but has not set a launch date for an initial orbital flight attempt.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, tweeted on September 21 that an orbital launch attempt could take place in late October, “but November seems very likely.” Musk has made several predictions, however, about an orbital launch of Starship, including in a September 2019 event when he predicted that Starship would make an orbital launch by the mid-2020s.
Musk tweeted on August 2 that expect a first successful orbital flight of the Starship any time from 1 to 12 months. The company has yet to secure a FAA launch permit for an orbital launch of Starship, although it passed an environmental review with conditions in June.