SpaceX accomplished yet another historic milestone on Sunday, February 19th, 2017 with its highly anticipated debut liftoff from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A (LC-39A) in Florida, originally built for the 1960s-era Apollo moon missions and later renovated for the space shuttle program.“This is the same launch pad used by the Saturn V rocket that first took people to the moon in 1969,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk posted to Instagram on February 10th. “We are honored to be allowed to use it.”
SpaceX signed an exclusive, 20-year lease of Launch Complex 39A on April 14, 2014, and soon began the necessary modifications so the pad would be able to support both their existing Falcon 9 and upcoming Falcon Heavy launch vehicles. With critical refurbishments complete, a three-second static fire test of Falcon 9 was successfully performed on February 12th, demonstrating that both rocket and pad were ready to go for launch.
At NASA’s pre-launch press briefing on February 18th, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer, Gwynne Shotwell, responded to queries about LC-39A and the company’s future plans regarding further modifications. “There’s some work to do on the pad. We have the crew arm to put in and we’ve got some other upgrades as well.” Shotwell said. “It’s hard to express how excited I am to be here, just two and a half years after receiving the lease,” Shotwell added.
During the press conference, Kennedy Space Center Director, Bob Cabana, spoke about how it felt to see this pad come back to life. “I think it means a lot to see the pad just not sit and waste away. It’s a tremendous asset, and everybody that I’ve talked to is very pleased to see that we’re still utilizing it and it’s fulfilling a function. We want to see more launches, government, and commercial off all these pads. It’s an exciting time for spaceflight, and we have an awesome future in front of us.” Pad 39A will become the platform from which the Falcon Heavy will launch in coming months as will future missions to Mars, adding to the site’s legacy.
Originally slated for a 10:01 am (ET) liftoff on February 18th, the launch was held off by Musk with 13 seconds left in the countdown, pushing the launch to the next available window, 9:39 am the following morning. “System was green for launch. I called it off,” Musk tweeted when asked if he personally made the call to halt liftoff. “Btw, 99% likely to be fine…but that 1% isn’t worth rolling the dice. Better to wait another day,” a rightfully cautious Musk wrote.
Falcon and Dragon lifted off as scheduled. About eight minutes following the launch, Falcon’s first stage booster elegantly touched down onto Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, making this the eighth successful booster landing for SpaceX, and the first daytime landing on land.
The launch marked not only the private company’s tenth cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) but also cemented another step toward Elon Musk and SpaceX’s goal of restoring human spaceflight to and from the orbiting laboratory, a U.S. asset which ended in 2011 with the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program. After 2 days in orbit, the SpaceX Dragon capsule will arrive at the ISS carrying nearly 5,500 lbs of scientific experiments, hardware, and crew supplies. Astronaut Thomas Pesquet will capture the spacecraft using the ISS’s 17.6-meter robotic arm. During the next month, the crew will unload the pressurized Dragon, and then reload it with scientific experiments to return to researchers on Earth. The Dragon will splash down into the Pacific Ocean about five and a half hours after departing the station.
The 1200-foot long Jetty Park Pier was filled with spectators, including many hardcore SpaceX fans, who had positioned themselves at the closest possible location to experience a visual of the first stage booster landing on Landing Zone 1, located about six miles away from the pier. This particular location is also an ideal spot to experience the crowd-pleasing sonic boom which can be heard at the 1:58 mark in this video:
Crowds of onlookers, photographers and fans were scattered among the different viewing locations both onsite and along the coast, eagerly awaiting this historic launch despite the two walls of rain that swept through that morning.
“This is what all billionaires should do with their money,” one fan asserted moments before the revolutionary booster descended from the clouds. “We need more Elons in the world!”