SpaceX has begun building an alternate launch pad for its cargo Dragon spacecraft and manned Dragon spacecraft, and said the facility could be operational as early as the fall of 2023.
Reuters reported last year that NASA was concerned that SpaceX’s experiments with Starship at its Florida launch site, the only one currently capable of launching Dragon, could lead to increased risks. In September 2022, NASA and SpaceX acknowledged plans to modify LC-40 for the Dragon launch and said the parties had decided to proceed.
Recently, SpaceX and NASA held another press conference, confirming that some construction work is already underway, and reporting that LC-40 may be ready to support its first launch in less than a year.
SpaceX’s Sarah Walker said the company is making “good progress” on getting Pad 40 ready at Cape Canaveral SFS to support a Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station in the fall, with additional crew launch capabilities to follow.
SpaceX is already clearing the site and starting piling work for the Pad 40’s new tower for crew and cargo missions, said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager.
Regulatory documents show that the new launch tower is 81 meters high, which is nearly a third lower than the 110-meter-high launch tower SpaceX modified on Pad 39A. Additionally, the LC-40 required a swingable access arm to connect the tower to the Dragon hatch. It is claimed that the robotic arm can be constructed off-site, further reducing the downtime required.
SpaceX says LC-40 will be ready to support its first Dragon mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station as early as the fall of 2023, meaning the tower, arms and pads won’t need to go through review right away.
In theory, SpaceX could even launch a Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft from LC-40 without a tower or arm, since the tower’s sole purpose during unmanned missions is to help crews load volatile cargo. SpaceX can return to its original Dragon 1 spacecraft practice and devise a method to delay loading cargo while Falcon 9 and Dragon are still horizontal.