A new look -- and new job -- for one of the space shuttle launch pads at Kennedy Space Center, which is being modified to support SpaceX Falcon Heavy and crewed Dragon missions. Image credit: Irene Klotz for Sen

Feb 28, 2015 Launch pads shaping up to return U.S. to human spaceflight

Sen—The United States took another step last week to restore its ability to launch astronauts into orbit, with the aim of breaking its dependence on Russia for rides before the end of 2017.

If schedules and funding holds, both Boeing and SpaceX will be launching space station crews for NASA from neighboring launch pads in Florida. The United States has been out of the human space launch business since it retired the space shuttles in 2011.

SpaceX is taking over one of Kennedy Space Center’s two shuttle launch pads for its passenger Dragon capsule missions. The company also plans to use pad 39A to fly its Falcon Heavy rockets, the first of which is slated to debut this year.

Two miles to the south at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Boeing and its partner United Launch Alliance broke ground last week on a 20-story tall access tower at Launch Complex 41, which will enable crews to board the CST-100 capsule on top of an Atlas rocket.

"This is the first construction of its type on the Cape since the 1960s," noted John Mulholland, Boeing vice president of commercial programs.

The metal lattice structure will be built off site in segments over the next 18 months, then assembled at Pad 41 in between a dozen Atlas launches. The rocket currently shoulders the bulk of the U.S. military’s launch business.

Pad 41 began life in the 1960s supporting Titan rockets, and then was revamped for the Atlas program in 2002. It was the starting point for some of NASA’s most important planetary science missions, including the Voyager spacecraft to the outer Solar System, the twin Mars Viking landers, the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Curiosity Mars Science Lab.

“This historic pad … will now launch an even more valuable, precious piece of cargo, and that's NASA astronauts to the station,” said Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana. “I can't wait to see this tower erected and an Atlas 5 up there with a CST-100 headed off to the International Space Station.”

The tower will be built in seven sections that are 28 feet tall, 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep and stacked, reaching a height of 200 feet, said Howard Biegler, launch operations engineer with United Launch Alliance.

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Artist's rendering of the top of the new crew access tower at Launch Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Image credit: United Launch Alliance

Astronauts will ride an elevator up to the 172-foot level and walk across a 42-foot access arm that will be pivoted into position by the capsule’s hatch. In case of an emergency on the launch pad, the tower will be outfitted with four slide-wire baskets, similar to the system used on the shuttle launch pads.

“We've taken a lot of the lessons learned from the shuttle and made some great improvements," Biegler said.

SpaceX and Boeing plan to test fly their capsules without crew in 2016 and 2017, respectively, before crewed test flights in 2017. Boeing plans to fly one NASA astronaut and one company astronaut; SpaceX said last month it was still deciding on its test pilot program.

NASA is expected to soon name a group of astronauts to begin training with Boeing and SpaceX.

“We’ll probably bring another pilot on board later this year from Boeing Test and Evaluation,” said the company’s program director Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who commanded the final space shuttle mission.

“We’re laying the groundwork for the best way to do this,” Ferguson told Sen. “Right now, Boeing’s big customer—and only customer—is NASA. After we’ve done our test program there would be really no purpose for Boeing (astronaut) pilots unless some other business develops somewhere along the line. That may evolve over the next couple of years, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Potential customers include Bigelow Aerospace, which has an agreement with Boeing to fly crew to its planned commercial space stations.

“Bigelow is on the horizon, but there’s no deal, there’s no ‘Hey, I’m launching my space station and your launch day is this day out here.’ Now that said, Bigelow has done an awful lot in the last six months to increase their stable of crew members … so they’ve obviously got designs on launching something before too long,” Ferguson added.