NASA and SpaceX Assess Potential Starship Threat to Crew Dragon Block

SpaceX is building a new gantry at Kennedy Space Center Complex 39A to launch its 394-foot-tall Super Heavy-Starship rocket, but NASA said Thursday it will not grant permission to fly until it assesses potential threats to a block. next used. send astronauts to the space station.

The new gantry and launch pad are being constructed about 300 meters from NASA’s original 39A launch pad, now leased by SpaceX, from which Falcon 9 rockets take off carrying cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.

Reuters reported last week that NASA managers are concerned that a catastrophic failure of the new starship at or just above could seriously damage Falcon 9’s launch infrastructure, disrupting SpaceX astronauts’ flights to the space station. aboard Crew Dragon capsules.

A SpaceX Super Heavy first stage and a Starship upper stage spacecraft were “stacked” last year for testing at the company’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. The company recently won conditional approval from the FAA to proceed with test flights from Texas as it advances construction of a new platform at the Kennedy Space Center.


“We all recognize that if you had an early failure like we had on one of SpaceX’s first flights, it would be pretty devastating for 39A,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s head of space operations, told Reuters.

She was presumably referring to a platform explosion 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 next-generation fully reusable rocket will be the largest and most powerful launcher ever built, generating 16 million pounds of thrust at lift-off – double that of NASA’s Space Launch System lunar rocket. – using 33 methane- burning Raptor engines.

The upper stage of the 160-foot-tall starship, carrying astronauts, cargo or both, will be powered by six Raptors. An upper stage variant is being developed under a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to serve as the initial lunar module in the agency’s Artemis program.

The second of eight massive starship launch gantry segments was transported to block 39A overnight Wednesday. (Credit: William Harwood/CBS News)

William Harwood/CBS News

SpaceX repaired and upgraded Launch Complex 40 after the 2016 crash and operates a third Falcon 9 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. But none of these facilities are equipped to launch Crew Dragon spacecraft.

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 considers Complex 39A critical to the space station’s ongoing operations.

Responding to a question from CBS News, NASA confirmed the Reuters story, saying on Thursday that SpaceX is still not allowed to launch from Complex 39A.

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

The second gantry segment was raised and lowered early Thursday (right), about 300 meters from the company’s Falcon 9 platform and gantry (left).

CBS News

Platform 40 does not currently have a gantry and SpaceX would have to undertake extensive modifications and upgrades to add access to a Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9, to allow for last-minute cargo additions and provide emergency escape capability.

As for the Super Heavy-Starship, SpaceX has already built a block in Boca Chica, Texas, where the company plans to begin orbital flight tests soon. It is in the process of building a second starship at 39A, stacking huge open lattice segments on top of each other using a massive crane.

The first of eight gantry segments was transported to the complex last week and a second was attached on Thursday.

The NASA statement said the agency “is responsible for ensuring that SpaceX remains in compliance with the ownership agreement requirements 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 approval to build. Additional review of hazards, operational impacts, and carrying capacity will be required prior to a launch.”

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

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