SpaceX Leases Florida Launch Pad for Falcon Landings

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WASHINGTON – SpaceX plans to convert a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, into a landing pad for the reusable rocket boosters it is developing to power its Falcon family of rockets.

The U.S. Air Force announced Feb. 10 that SpaceX has signed a five-year lease for Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 13, which was used to launch Atlas rockets and missiles between 1956 and 1978. In its new role, it will serve as a landing pad for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy booster cores launched from Florida, the Air Force said. Financial terms of the lease were not disclosed.

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Nina Armagno. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Patrick Air Force Base
“The way we see it, this is a classic combination of a highly successful launch past morphing into an equally promising future,” Brig. Gen. Nina Armagno, commander of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, said. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Patrick Air Force Base

“The way we see it, this is a classic combination of a highly successful launch past morphing into an equally promising future,” Brig. Gen. Nina Armagno, commander of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, said in a Feb. 10 statement. “It’s a whole new world, and the 45th Space Wing is committed to defining and building the Spaceport of the future.”

SpaceX’s plan calls for constructing a 60-meter by 60-meter square concrete landing pad surrounded by four additional 45-meter diameter “contingency” pads, according to a 2014 environmental impact statement prepared for SpaceX and the Air Force.

“The contingency pads would only be utilized in order to enable the safe landing of a single vehicle should last-second navigation and landing diversion be required. There are no plans to utilize the contingency pads in order to enable landing multiple stages” at once, the assessment said. The document was prepared by Gator Engineering and Aquifer Restoration, Inc. of Lake Mary, Florida.

In addition, SpaceX plans to build a steel stand to secure the stage during “post-landing operations” the impact statement said. The company does not expect more than 12 landings a year.

SpaceX spokesman John Taylor declined comment on the company’s Launch Complex 13 plans.

Toward Reusability

SpaceX has designed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket to fly back to the launch site and land using leftover propellant. A series of successful low-altitude landing tests in Texas led SpaceX in January to attempt to land an actual Falcon 9 booster on the deck of a ship positioned 600 kilometers downrange from Cape Canaveral. The booster, which had been used to loft SpaceX’s Dragon capsule on its fifth paid cargo run to the International Space Station, made it back the ship, but crashed into the deck after running out of hydraulic fluid used by the four fins that help steer the stage.

SpaceX plans to try again when it launches the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Liftoff is slated for Feb. 10 at 6:05 p.m.

Since 2010, SpaceX has launched the Falcon 9 rocket 13 times from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex-40 and once from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The DSCOVR launch marks the Falcon 9’s 15th mission.

SpaceX has signed at least two other launch pad leases in recent months. Last year, the Hawthorne, California-based company leased Kennedy Space Center’s Space Launch Complex-39A for Falcon Heavy launches and crewed Falcon 9 Dragon missions to the ISS.

In January, the Air Force told SpaceNews it is leasing Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex-4 West to SpaceX, giving the company neighboring launch sites on the service’s western range. SpaceX has hinted it plans to develop a landing pad at that site as well.

A Falcon Heavy booster returns to its landing site in this image from a SpaceX animation.
A Falcon Heavy booster returns to its landing site in this image from a SpaceX animation.