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 won’t grant permission to fly until it has would not have assessed possible threats to a nearby pad used to send astronauts to the space station.
The new gantry and launch pad is being built about 1,000 feet from NASA’s original 39A launch pad, now leased by SpaceX, where Falcon 9 rockets blast off to ferry cargo and astronauts to the Space Station international.
Reuters reported last week that NASA officials fear the possibility of a catastrophic failure on or just above the new Starship pad that could severely damage Falcon 9 launch infrastructure, halting SpaceX astronaut flights to the space station aboard the Crew Dragon capsules.
“We all recognize that if you had an early failure like we did on one of the first SpaceX flights, it would be pretty devastating for 39A,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s chief of space operations, told Reuters.
She was presumably referring to an explosion on the platform in 2016 that destroyed a Falcon 9 and its communications satellite payload, severely damaging Launch Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in the process.
The Super Heavy-Starship takes this threat to a different level.
Tipping the scales at around 11 million pounds, the fully reusable next-generation rocket will be the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever built, generating 16 million pounds of liftoff thrust – twice that of the Space Launch moon rocket. NASA system – using 33 methane-burning Raptor engines.
The 160-foot-tall Starship’s upper stage, carrying astronauts, cargo or both, will be powered by six Raptors. An upper-stage variant is being developed under a $2.9 billion contract with NASA to serve as the initial lunar lander in the agency’s Artemis program.
SpaceX repaired and upgraded Launch Complex 40 following the 2016 accident 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 astronaut ferry ships.
Boeing’s Starliner capsule, which will launch from a crew-ready platform at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, is not yet certified for operational use and NASA is considering Complex 39A as essential to the ongoing operations of the space station.
Responding to a query from CBS News, NASA confirmed the Reuters story, saying on Thursday that SpaceX does not yet have clearance to launch from Complex 39A.
“In the coming weeks, NASA and SpaceX will conduct an extensive review to ensure safe operations on the pad and assess redundant launch capabilities for NASA crewed and cargo missions to the International Space Station,” NASA said in a statement.
“As part of the review, NASA and SpaceX are evaluating all available options, including developing a crew transport capability at Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. “
Pad 40 does not currently have a gantry, and SpaceX is expected to make significant modifications and upgrades to add access to a Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9, to allow cargo additions of last minute and to provide emergency evacuation capability.
As for the Super Heavy-Starship, SpaceX has already built a platform in Boca Chica, Texas, where the company plans to begin orbital flight testing soon. He’s building a second spaceship pad at 39A, stacking huge open-truss segments on top of each other using a huge crane.
The first of eight gantry segments was transported to the complex last week and a second was attached early Thursday.
NASA’s statement says the agency “is responsible for ensuring that SpaceX remains compliant with the requirements of the Ownership Agreement for the use of Launch Complex 39A.”
“These requirements include those related to construction, safety and environmental conditions,” the statement said. “At this time, NASA has only provided construction approval. Further review of hazards, operational impacts and supportability will be required prior to a launch.”
And as with all launches from US soil, SpaceX will need a license from the Federal Aviation Administration.