NASA and SpaceX will assess the potential spacecraft threat to the Crew Dragon platform

SpaceX is building a new towering bridge at Kennedy Space Center’s Complex 39A to launch its 394-foot Super Heavy Starship, but NASA said Thursday it would not grant permission to fly until it had assessed potential threats to a nearby board used to send astronauts. to the space station.

The giant and new launch pad is being built about 1,000 feet from NASA’s original Launch Pad 39A, now leased by SpaceX, from which it blasts Falcon 9 rockets to transport cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.

Reuters reported last week that NASA officials fear a catastrophic failure could occur at or just above the new spacecraft’s platform, which could severely damage the Falcon 9 launch infrastructure and halt flights of SpaceX astronauts to the space station aboard Crew Dragon capsules.

The SpaceX Super Heavy first stage and spacecraft were “stacked” in the upper stage of the Starship last year for testing at the company’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. The company recently received conditional approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct test flights from Texas while continuing to build a new platform at the Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX

“We all understand that if you had an early failure like it did on one of SpaceX’s first flights, it would be very devastating for 39A,” Kathy Luders, chief of space operations at NASA, told Reuters.

She was most likely referring to an explosion on the platform in 2016 that destroyed the Falcon 9 and its communications satellite payload, severely damaging Launch Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in the process.

Super Heavy-Starship takes this threat to a different level.

The fully reusable next-generation rocket will be the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever built, generating 16 million pounds of thrust β€” twice that of a moon rocket for space launch. NASA’s system β€” using 33 methane-burning Raptor engines.

The upper stage of the 160-foot-high spacecraft, carrying astronauts, payload, 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 a primary lunar lander for the agency’s Artemis program.

062222-clip 1.jpg
The second part of the massive eight spacecraft launch arch was moved to Pad 39A overnight on Wednesday. (Credit: William Harwood/CBS News)

William Harwood/CBS News

SpaceX repaired and upgraded Launch Complex 40 after the 2016 accident and operated the third Falcon 9 platform 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 be launched from a crew-ready platform at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, has not been certified for operational use, and NASA considers Compound 39A essential to the space station’s ongoing operations.

In response to a query from CBS News, NASA confirmed the Reuters story, saying on Thursday that SpaceX did not have permission to launch from Complex 39A.

“In the coming weeks, NASA and SpaceX will conduct a comprehensive review to ensure safe operations on the platform and assess redundant launch capabilities for NASA’s cargo and crew 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 crew transportation capacity at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.”

062322-grue3.jpg
The second section of the giant gantry was raised and lowered early Thursday (right), about 1,000 feet from the board and the company’s Falcon 9 bridge (left).

CBS News

The Pad 40 does not currently have a crane bridge, and SpaceX is expected to make significant modifications and upgrades to add access to the Crew Dragon on top of the Falcon 9, to allow for last-minute cargo additions and to provide for emergency evacuation.

For 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 cushion in 39A, stacking huge sections of exposed truss on top of each other using a massive crane.

The first of the eight gantry segments was moved to the complex last week and the second part was attached early Thursday.

The NASA statement says the agency is “responsible for ensuring that SpaceX remains compliant with the requirements of the ownership agreement for use of Launch Complex 39A.”

“These requirements include those related to construction, safety and environmental conditions,” the statement said. β€œAt this time, NASA has only submitted approval for construction. Further review of risks, operational impacts and supportability will be required prior to launch.”

And, as with all launches from US soil, SpaceX will need a license from the Federal Aviation Administration.