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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is about to launch from a pad used for the first Moon mission

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After more than five years, a historic launchpad has a rocket on it again

Launch Complex 39A

SpaceX is gearing up for its next Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, but this mission will be a little different from the company’s past launches from the Florida coast. The Falcon 9 won’t be launching from its normal launchpad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Launch Complex 40. Instead, SpaceX will be launching out of Launch Complex 39A — a site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that was once used for Space Shuttle launches and flights of the Saturn V rockets that took astronauts to the Moon.

The last launch from 39A took place on July 8th, 2011. It was the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, as well as the final mission for the entire Shuttle program. Since then, the pad has remained mostly dormant. But in 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA to use the launchpad at 39A and refurbish it so that the site could support launches of the company’s Falcon 9 and the future Falcon Heavy.

Since then SpaceX has been updating the 39A pad, and the company has built a large warehouse called the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) right outside the pad’s perimeter. The HIF is used to store Falcon 9 rockets and get the vehicles ready prior to launch out of 39A. Up until now, SpaceX has been using the HIF to temporarily store the reusable Falcon 9 rockets the company has landed after launches out of Cape Canaveral. But the pad has still been quiet.

Landed Falcon 9 boosters at HIF.
Photo: SpaceX

Originally, SpaceX relied on Launch Complex 40 to support all of its Florida launches. But on September 1st, one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded on the LC40 pad during a routine fueling procedure, and the site was badly damaged. So now, 39A will be the main pad for SpaceX’s East Coast launches moving forward, at least until LC40 is back to normal operations, and then the company will have two options for launching out of Florida. Additionally, the first flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy — a large heavy-lift rocket that is essentially three Falcon 9 cores strapped together — is supposed to fly for the first time from 39A later this year.

SpaceX already returned to flight in January, launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but the first Falcon 9 launch from 39A is slated for February 18th. This launch is another resupply mission for NASA, carrying cargo and science experiments to the astronauts on board the International Space Station. While the launch is still a week away, the Falcon 9 has gone vertical at 39A in preparation for a static fire, a test in which the rocket’s engines are turned on while the vehicle is constrained. CEO Elon Musk shared a picture of the Falcon 9 upright at 39A today, saying SpaceX is “honored to be allowed to use” the pad.