SpaceX's primary launch pad now contains the necessary equipment for the astronauts

Upgrades at SpaceX's most-used launch pad in Florida will go live Thursday with the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo ship headed to the International Space Station.

SpaceX's Cargo Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to launch at 4:55 p.m. EDT (20:55 UTC) on Thursday from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. This mission, known as CRS-30, is SpaceX's 30th resupply mission to the space station since 2012.

The robotic supply ship Dragon will launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, then head for a month-long stay on the International Space Station, where it will provide more than 6,000 pounds of instrumentation, fresh food and experiments to the seven laboratory teams. -Crew person.

In the past few months, SpaceX has outfitted the launch pad with the necessary equipment to support human spaceflight launches aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Cargo Dragon capsule is the same size and shape as SpaceX's Crew Dragon, but filled with cargo racks and storage platforms instead of seats and cockpit displays.

SpaceX technicians this week used SLC-40's newly installed launch tower and crew access arm to load time-sensitive experiments and supplies into the Cargo Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

“CRS-30 will be the first Dragon to launch from Pad 40 since we put this new crew tower in place,” said Sarah Walker, SpaceX's director of Dragon mission management.

Building new capabilities

Starting last year, construction crews at Cape Canaveral erected portions of a more than 200-foot-tall metal lattice tower at SLC-40, adjacent to the starting points for SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. Before that, SLC-40 was based on a “clean platform” architecture, without any structures to service or access the Falcon 9 rockets while they were vertically on the platform.

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In November, contractors raised the crew access boom to an anchor point near the top of the tower. This walkway will allow astronauts to crawl onto the Crew Dragon spacecraft during the launch countdown. It also provides access to the hatch on the Cargo Dragon spacecraft for loading final cargo.

Earlier this year, SpaceX tested an escape chute on SLC-40 that can be used in emergency situations to help astronauts and ground crews quickly move away from the pad. The chute is similar in function to the sliding wire baskets used for decades on the LC-39A, but instead of riding the basket from the top of the tower, personnel escaping an emergency would slide down the chute to be carried several hundred feet from the top of the tower. The missile.

SpaceX employees tested the escape chute last month on SLC-40. Gwen Shotwell, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer, made the trip down the chute. “The safety of astronauts and personnel is SpaceX's top priority, which is why I had to test the new chip in person,” she posted on X's website, alongside a mysterious emoji.

“The team took commercially available technology and applied it to the crew tower,” said Kiko Dontchev, vice president of launch at SpaceX. Written on X. “You're trained for it the same way you're trained to use an emergency exit door on an airplane. It only takes a few quick physical actions to deploy the slide and anyone can do it effectively.”

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As more people travel into space, especially on larger vehicles like SpaceX's Starship, simplifying safety systems will be important.

“This system will help us scale constellations and larger spacecraft (think 100 people on a spacecraft),” Dontchev wrote.

SpaceX and its contractors have completed all this work, launching Falcon 9s SLC-40 every few days with Starlink satellites and other missions.

For the past four years, all SpaceX crew and cargo flights to the space station have launched from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, a few miles offshore from SLC-40. In 2018 and 2019, SpaceX equipped the LC-39A for the Cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon missions ahead of the company's first crewed spaceflight mission in 2020.

Walker said the new infrastructure added on the SLC-40 is “functionally nearly identical” to the crew-mission-specific equipment on the LC-39A. The main differences are the means of escape from the platform – a chute instead of sliding wire baskets – and the more powerful tower elevator of the SLC-40.

Previously, SpaceX used both the SLC-40 and LC-39A to launch its now-retired first-generation Dragon cargo capsules, the final supplies of which were loaded before SpaceX lifted the rocket vertically for launch. Like regular satellite launches on Falcon 9s, both platforms can support first-generation Dragon cargo missions.

“Thanks to the new, advanced crew tower required for human spaceflight missions, this delayed loading process has gotten a huge upgrade as well. It's much easier to load a wide range of time,” Walker said. -Critical NASA science on our Dragon spacecraft heading into flight.

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SpaceX has dramatically increased its launch pace since building the LC-39A for Dragon missions. The company plans to launch approximately 150 Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets this year. When you launch missiles every two or three days, it is inevitable that two missions will compete for the same launch slots. That happened as recently as February, when NASA's crew mission was ready for launch from LC-39A around the same time as the tight launch window for Intuitive Machines' first commercial lunar lander. Both had to disembark from LC-39A.

“Historically, Platform 40 has been our high-rate platform,” Walker said. “We’ve reduced the time between launches to just two days.”

The LC-39A has seen less use, primarily for Dragon crew and cargo flights, Falcon Heavy missions, and other “uniquely complex” missions such as the Intuitive Machines lander, Walker said.

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