KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — Hoping to make liftoffs less expensive, SpaceX wants to land its rockets not on a barge at sea but at a new pad on Cape Canaveral.
The California-based rocket company still has to prove that it can safely land rockets, part of its strategy to make its Falcon rockets reusable and cheaper to launch. So far, SpaceX has twice tried to land rockets on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean with some positive results but without ultimate success.
Last week, SpaceX signed a five-year lease with the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, giving the company control over Launch Complex 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The pad was used by the Air Force and NASA to launch Atlas rockets from 1959 to 1978.
SpaceX is not yet publicly talking about its plans, though they are detailed in an environmental-impact study approved in January, clearing regulatory issues. The study says it intends to land up to 12 rockets a year there, just a couple of miles down the Air Force station’s beach from where SpaceX launches.
The Air Force released a statement in which Brig. Gen. Nina Armagno, commander of the Air Force 45th Space Wing, said the deal is “a classic combination of a highly successful launch past morphing into an equally promising future.”
Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, which is pushing to turn Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station into a multiuse spaceport that launches NASA, military and private rockets, said he thinks SpaceX could be landing its rockets there well before the end of the decade.
But first, DiBello said, SpaceX has to get its landing technology to the point that both the company and its customers trust they can do it safely on a consistent basis. That confidence, he said, might require numerous test landings.
While SpaceX has been publicly talking about landing its rockets on a barge, the company eventually needs the stability of a landing site on land, he said. That was evident in SpaceX’s most recent attempt, earlier this month, when the company had to bring the rocket down into the water because the sea was too rough for the barge. In the first attempt, in January, the rocket hit the barge and blew up.
“The fact that they have figured out the mechanics of getting it back down to the pad is impressive,” he said.
At Launch Complex 13, most of the structures from the 1950s and ’60s were torn down long ago. SpaceX intends to build five landing pads there. The primary pad would be 200 feet square. Four contingency pads, each 150 feet square, would surround it.
Even with the extra pads, though, the company only plans to land one rocket booster per launch. SpaceX’s current primary rocket, the Falcon 9, has only one rocket booster.
The company is developing a three-booster Falcon Heavy rocket that it plans to test next year. With this pad, two of Falcon Heavy boosters would have to go into the ocean or onto barges.
“A multiple booster landing scenario would require additional infrastructure and study not included as part of this proposed action,” SpaceX stated in its environmental-assessment report.