On July 8, 2011, Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off on the final Shuttle flight and the last launch from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A. Now, almost six years later, the pad is about to be used again for the first time by SpaceX.
Pad 39A in Florida is a historic site, used not only for Space Shuttle launches but also the huge Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the Moon. After the Shuttle was retired, the pad went unused, until SpaceX came onto the scene. In 2014, NASA gave Elon Musk’s company a 20-year lease to exclusively use 39A in the future.
Originally, it had been hoped they might start launching from there in 2015, but instead they’ve been using nearby Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Their next launch in a week or so, though, is going to be the first to fly from 39A since Atlantis.
This will be on February 3, expected between 12.07am and 2.37am EST (5.07am and 7.37am GMT), and will see a Falcon 9 rocket carry the EchoStar 23 communications satellite for the EchoStar Corporation into orbit, intended to provide direct-to-home television broadcast services over Brazil, although Space.com notes they are still awaiting a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Unlike SpaceX’s most recent launch last week, this one won’t land back on Earth – but it’s likely to be one of the company’s last ever expendable rockets. On February 15, there will be another launch from 39A, as SpaceX launches its latest Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
The company has revamped Pad 39A, too. In the past, Space Shuttles would be brought in on a transporter from several miles away. Now, a horizontal integration facility next to the pad will let SpaceX more quickly get its rockets out and ready for liftoff.
SpaceX's most recent rocket launched on January 14, 2017. SpaceX
“Seeing a famous old pad come back to life will be a huge positive for those who feel we’re now over the post-Shuttle retirement hill and looking to the future again,” Chris Bergin, managing editor for NASASpaceflight, told Gizmodo.
And there’s going to be plenty more excitement from 39A in the future. SpaceX is hoping to use it and its neighboring pad, 39B, for the launch of both Falcon 9 rockets and its upcoming Falcon Heavy, expected to launch later this year. It also plans to use it for its upcoming manned launches, starting in 2018, while NASA will use 39B for its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from 2018.
The Space Shuttle might be retired, but thanks largely to SpaceX, we’re about to get a taste of what the future of spaceflight holds.