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SpaceX will return to scene of its last explosion in December

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Operating on two launchpads could finally pave the way for Falcon Heavy’s first flight

A Falcon 9 rocket taking off from SLC-40 in 2015.
Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX will fly its next mission to the International Space Station in December from launchpad SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, marking the first flight from the pad since a Falcon 9 rocket exploded there in September 2016. The private spaceflight company will use a previously used Dragon spacecraft for this flight, too, one that first flew on the sixth commercial resupply mission for NASA, CRS-6, back in April 2015. This will be the second time SpaceX has reused a Dragon ship; the first was earlier this summer.

The rocket that blew up at SLC-40 last year was being loaded with fuel for a pre-flight test when it erupted in flames on the launchpad. The explosion grounded the company’s spaceflight activities for almost five months. In the meantime, SpaceX determined the cause of the explosion, was cleared by the FAA to return to flight, and has since launched 15 successful missions across 2017.

SpaceX has been repairing SLC-40 while launching all of its Florida missions from another launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, LC-39A, which was once used to launch the Apollo missions to the Moon and Space Shuttle missions. Today’s announcement indicates that repairs are more or less complete at SLC-40 and now SpaceX has the option to shift its Falcon 9s to the newly refurbished site.

That has implications for the company’s bigger launch ambitions. Now that SLC-40 is operational again, SpaceX can focus on getting LC-39A ready for the first flight of the Falcon Heavy — the much larger 3-booster vehicle that Elon Musk has been promising to fly since 2011. SpaceX needs to update equipment at the pad to support the much larger vehicle, and most of that work couldn’t be done while the company was flying missions from LC-39A.

The Dragon capsule that was used on the CRS-6 mission, seen here returning to Earth, will fly again in December. It’s the second time SpaceX has reused a Dragon spacecraft.
Photo: SpaceX

With SLC-40 operational, SpaceX can dive into that upgrade work at LC-39A, which means a Falcon Heavy flight may happen sooner rather than later. There’s been no official word on when that will be, however, SpaceX has indicated that the bulk of the upgrades for Falcon Heavy could take a month or two once Falcon 9 launches shift to SLC-40. Elon Musk said in July that Falcon Heavy would fly in November, but SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell would only commit to the end of the year when speaking in September.

The reasoning SpaceX has begun reusing its Dragon spacecraft is similar to why it’s spent so much time trying to recycle all of its Falcon 9 rocket boosters: it helps reduce costs, both for the company and its customers. Recovering a Dragon spacecraft is easier than recovering a rocket, since it remains in tact and floats once it settles down in the ocean. But if SpaceX can reuse the whole Falcon 9 system, it could help pave the way for the bigger rockets Elon Musk plans to fly to the Moon and Mars.

There have also been rumors that SpaceX will use one of its used Falcon 9s for this upcoming flight to the ISS, though neither NASA nor SpaceX have confirmed if that will be the case.