The recent Falcon 9 rocket explosion badly damaged SpaceX's Florida launch pad at Cape Canaveral, meaning the company’s primary launch site is out of commission for the foreseeable future. But while that pad undergoes repairs, SpaceX says it can continue launching vehicles from its two other launch sites — one in California and another one in Cape Canaveral.
That doesn’t mean the company will be getting back to its regular flight schedule just yet, though. SpaceX’s California launch pad can only be used for certain types of missions to space, and the second Florida pad isn’t quite ready to support launches just yet.
The company won't be getting back to its regular flight schedule just yet
The pad damaged in Thursday’s explosion is located at Launch Complex 40 — a site at the Cape that SpaceX leases from the US Air Force. It’s the pad that SpaceX uses for most of its launches: of the eight Falcon 9s the company has launched this year, seven took off from Launch Complex 40. Not being able to use the pad is going to significantly throw off SpaceX’s busy launch schedule for the rest of the year. The company is currently trying to figure out how long it’s going to take to get the site back to normal. "The pad clearly incurred damage, but the scope has yet to be fully determined," said SpaceX in an update on Friday. "We will share more data as it becomes available."
SpaceX’s only other operational launch pad right now is at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. But the pad’s location on the West Coast limits the types of rockets that can launch from there. The Vandenberg site can really only be used for Falcon 9s going to polar orbits — a path that takes satellites over the north and south poles. To get into such an orbit from Vandenberg, rockets typically launch toward the south. That’s fine, because it means the rocket travels over the ocean as it gains altitude and doesn’t pose a threat to anyone on the Earth below.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 at the company's Vandenberg launch pad. (NASA)
But if you want to go to the International Space Station in lower Earth orbit, you can’t launch from Vandenberg. Nor can you launch into geostationary transfer orbit — a highly elliptical path over the Earth’s equator. To get to those orbits, rockets have to launch toward the east. And launching eastward from Vandenberg means the rocket would have to fly over land, which could potentially pose a threat to the general public below. That’s why Launch Complex 40’s position on the East Coast makes it the ideal spot for sending spacecraft to lower Earth orbit and to GTO. The rockets fly over open ocean before getting to space.
Fortunately, SpaceX has been working on a second launch pad at Cape Canaveral: Launch Complex 39A. It’s an old Apollo and Space Shuttle launch site that the company leases from NASA. SpaceX has been modifying the launch pad at 39A to get it ready for flights of its Falcon Heavy — a huge heavy-lift rocket that’s essentially three Falcon 9s strapped together. The first flight of the Falcon Heavy was supposed to happen later this year, though, so 39A won’t be ready until November, according to SpaceX. That means the remaining eight flights scheduled for the rest of the year, including the first flight of a used Falcon 9, may have to wait a little longer.
"We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight."
Still SpaceX says that both the Vandenberg site and 39A can support Falcon 9 launches, as well as launches of the Falcon Heavy. "We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs," the company wrote in the update. Eventually, SpaceX will also be able to launch from a new site it’s building near Brownsville, Texas, located just above the Mexican border on the Gulf of Mexico. However, the first launches there aren’t expected until 2018, according to Space News.
Meanwhile, SpaceX has assembled an Accident Investigation Team, overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration, to determine the cause of Thursday's accident. The team will also work with industry experts, as well as NASA and the US Air Force to understand the cause of the accident. The company has much work ahead of it. "We are currently in the early process of reviewing approximately 3,000 channels of telemetry and video data covering a time period of just 35-55 milliseconds," wrote SpaceX.
The company also promises to find the root cause of the accident and make sure its vehicles are safe before they fly again. "Our number one priority is to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers, as well as to take all the necessary steps to ensure the highest possible levels of safety for future crewed missions with the Falcon 9," said SpaceX. "We will carefully and thoroughly investigate and address this issue."