SpaceX launch facilities

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The Falcon 9 launch complex at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

SpaceX currently uses two leased orbital launch sites—Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Space Launch Complex 4 in California—and has one suborbital facility in use, the SpaceX Rocket Development and Test Facility in Texas, with an additional high-altitude suborbital test facility under construction in New Mexico.[1]

In addition, SpaceX has leased a second orbital launch facility in Florida to accommodate both Falcon Heavy flights beginning in 2016 and crewed space missions in 2017. SpaceX is also building a commercial-only launch facility at a site near Brownsville, Texas where they expect the first flight no earlier than 2016.

SpaceX has indicated that they see a niche for each of the four orbital facilities currently in use or under construction, and that they have sufficient launch business to fill each pad,[2] particularly so by the end of the decade if SpaceX business remains strong.[1]


The first Falcon 1 at SpaceX's leased launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. This vehicle was removed from VAFB due to delays and eventually launched from Omelek Island.

Two launch pads for Falcon 1

SpaceX originally intended to launch its first launch vehicle, the Falcon 1, from a leased facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base. A launch pad (Space Launch Complex–Three West, or SLC-3W) was modified by SpaceX to support the Falcon 1, and the Falcon 1 was placed on the pad in 2005. Problems arose when SpaceX was unable to obtain sufficient launch window availability because the pad would overfly other Air Force pads that were frequently left occupied for weeks or months at a time, thus severely restricting SpaceX launches.[3] The launch pad was never used for a vehicle that left the pad, although it was used for a number of ground tests.

SpaceX proceeded to then build a launch facility in the northern Pacific Ocean at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, on Omelek Island, a part of the Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands. SpaceX began launching Falcon 1 rockets from Omelek in 2006. Falcon 1 Flight 4 was the first successful privately funded, liquid-propelled launch vehicle to achieve orbit, and was launched from Omelek Island on 28 September 2008. followed by another Falcon 1 launch on 13 July 2009, placing RazakSAT into orbit[4]

SpaceX had at one point in the past planned to upgrade the Omelek launch site for use by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, but has since cancelled its plans to do so, to the point of disassembling the entire installation. In December 2010, the SpaceX launch manifest listed Omelek (Kwajalein) as a potential site for several Falcon 9 launches, the first planned for as early as 2012.[5] The Falcon 9 Overview document also offered Kwajalein as a launch option in 2010.[6] Since then, the FAA Environmental Impact Report of May 2014 lists this site as non-operational and returned to its original state, to no longer be used, "Five Falcon 1 launches occurred at Omelek Island, Kwajalein Atoll. After these launches of the Falcon 1, the site was no longer needed and SpaceX closed the site and returned the property to pre-launch conditions" [7]

All Falcon 1 launches have taken place at this location, five launches from 2006 to 2009. SpaceX abandoned Omelek when Falcon 1 was retired, due to the expense of logistics.

SpaceX west coast launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base, during the launch of CASSIOPE, September 2013.

Falcon 9

SpaceX has used two launch facilities for Falcon 9 launches through 2014, one at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and a second one near Lompoc, California used for the first flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket in September 2013. Both are leased facilities from the U.S. Air Force. All 2014 Falcon 9 flights are planned from Cape Canaveral, with Vandenberg Falcon 9 launches ramping up in 2015.[1]

For the second Falcon 9 launch pad, located at Vandenberg Air Force Base, SpaceX broke ground on 13 July 2011.[3][8] A 2011 estimate showed that the project was expected to cost between $20 to $30 million for the first 24 months of construction and operation; thereafter, operational costs were expected to be $5–10 million per year. SpaceX papers filed with regulatory authorities indicate they could launch up to 16 flights per year from Vandenberg by 2015.[3]

Launch facility growth

COO Gwynne Shotwell said in 2014 that "we are expanding in all of our locations" and "you will end up seeing a lot of SpaceX launch sites in order to meet the future demand that we anticipate."[9]

SpaceX has two orbital launch facilities currently under construction. The company signed a 20-year lease in April 2014 to use Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39, just a few miles north of their existing pad at SLC-40 on the adjacent Air Force Station. The pad will be modified to support SpaceX launch vehicles and is intended to launch the first east coast Falcon Heavy in 2016.[10] SpaceX announced in August 2014 that they would be building their new commercial launch site at Boca Chica Village near Brownsville, Texas for their private use, with an emphasis on commercial space transport work.[11][12]

Current orbital launch facilities

SpaceX currently has two launch facilities in use for the Falcon 9, one at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and a second one near Lompoc, California used for the first flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket in the fall of 2013, with a third facility leased and under construction at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), also at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

File:COTS 2 Falcon launches.jpg
Falcon 9, Flight 3, above SpaceX Cape Canaveral launch complex, May 2012.

With increased use of the Florida leased launch pad following the introduction of Falcon 9 v1.1 in the fall of 2013, the Air Force launch support operations at the Cape are planning for a total of 21 launches in 2014, a fifty percent increase over the 2013 launch rate. SpaceX has reservations for a ten of those 21 launches, with an option for an eleventh.[13]

As of 2014, future launches of Falcon 9s on the SpaceX manifest are currently planned for either Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg AFB SLC-4E (Polar Launches),[14] or at KSC LP39A beginning in 2015.[10]

File:SpaceX Cape Canaveral Launch Control Center (KSC-2011-5103).jpg
SpaceX Cape Canaveral Launch Control Center in 2010


The first five Falcon 9 flights used the SpaceX-leased launch pad at Cape Canaveral SLC-40 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.[1] These were all flights of the Falcon 9 v1.0 launch vehicle and were flown 2010–2013. Flights of the Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicle from Cape Caneveral began in late 2013 and have continued into 2015.

SpaceX leases a second Florida launch facility at Kennedy Space Center Pad 39A. The pad is currently being modified to support Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, which will include the construction of a horizontal integration facility—similar to that used at existing leased facilities at Cape Canaveral AFS and Vandenberg AFB, but a marked difference from the vertical integration facility used by previous US government rockets that used the launch pad (Apollo Program and the Space Shuttle)—plus the installation of all new instrumentation and control systems, with substantial new plumbing for a variety of rocket liquids and gasses.[10]


The sixth flight of the Falcon 9, and the maiden flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle, used the newly rebuilt Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4E.[1]

The Vandenberg site is also intended for use by the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, which is scheduled to see its first test flight sometime in 2016.[15] Due to production bottlenecks for Falcon rocket cores, the maiden flight was moved back from late 2014 to 2015.[1] Later, after the CRS-7 failure, the inaugural launch was moved to 2016.[15]

VTVL test rocket facilities

SpaceX has two rocket test facilities for vertical takeoff, vertical landing rockets: the SpaceX Rocket Development and Test Facility in McGregor, Texas and a leased test facility at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.[1] All SpaceX rocket engines are tested on rocket test stands, and low-altitude VTVL flight testing of the Falcon 9 Grasshopper v1.0 test vehicle are done at McGregor. High-altitude, high-velocity flight testing of Grasshopper v1.1 are planned to be done at Spaceport America. In addition to atmospheric flight testing, and rocket engine testing, the McGregor facility is also used for post-flight disassembly and defueling of the Dragon spacecraft following orbital missions.

Both flight test facilities are principally involved in developing and testing various elements of the SpaceX reusable launch system development program, with a goal to making future SpaceX launch systems fully and rapidly reusable.[16]

SpaceX Rocket Development and Test Facility, McGregor, Texas

The company purchased the McGregor, Texas, testing facilities of defunct Beal Aerospace—on land that had formerly been a bomb manufacturing plant during World War II[17]—where it refitted the largest test stand at the facilities for Falcon 9 engine testing. SpaceX has made a number of improvements to the facility since purchase, and has also extended the size of the facility by purchasing several pieces of adjacent farmland. In 2011, the company announced plans to upgrade the facility for launch testing a VTVL rocket,[18] and then constructed a half-acre concrete launch facility in 2012 to support the Grasshopper test flight program.[19] As of March 2015, the facility comprised 4,000 acres (1,600 ha).[12]

The McGregor facility is used for research and development of new rocket engines and thrusters, as well as for testing final manufactured engines and various components and engines during development.[17]

SpaceX McGregor engine test bunker, September 2012

Although SpaceX manufactures all of its rocket engines and thrusters at its Hawthorne headquarters each must "pass through McGregor where the company tests each new engine off of the assembly line, as well as those being developed for future missions to orbit and beyond"[20] before each one can be used on a flight mission. As of October 2012, the McGregor facility had seven test stands that are operated "18 hours a day, six days a week"[20] and [was] building more test stands because production is ramping up and the company has a large manifest in the next several years. "The company's headquarters and factory in ... southern California gets a lot of the attention, but most of the noisy, dirty and critical testing work is done just outside this small central Texas town nestled in amid the farm fields."[20] Area residents were warned in late-April 2013 that much louder nine-engine booster tests of the more powerful Merlin 1D engine sets to be used on the Falcon 9 v1.1 first stages are expected to begin soon, with a 10-second test as early as 30 April, followed by a full-duration firing of the nine booster engines a few days later.[21] Extensive and repeated rocket engine testing is a key to increasing reliability and thereby mission success, while lowering operating cost for SpaceX.[22]

The area to support the test facility was initially just 256 acres (104 ha)[17] but by April 2011 had more than doubled to greater than 600 acres (240 ha).[23] As of September 2013, the McGregor facility had 11 test stands involved in the rocket engine test program, and was averaging two tests each day. The largest test stand by 2013 was the 82 meters (269 ft) tall Falcon 9 tripod.[24] By March 2015, the site had grown to 4,000 acres (1,600 ha) with 12 test stands; it had run over 4000 Merlin engines tests, including some 50 firings of the integrated nine-engine first stage.[12]

As of November 2013, the FAA permit to fly Grasshopper flight tests in Texas is open until October 2014.[25] With only three initial employees onsite, the facility had grown to over 140 employees by late 2011.[17][dated info]

Dragon spacecraft, following use on a space mission, splashdown and recovery, are shipped to McGregor for de-fueling, cleanup, and refurbishment for potential reuse in flight missions.[20]

SpaceX high-altitude test facility, New Mexico

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As part of the development program for the SpaceX reusable launch system, SpaceX announced in May 2013 that the high-altitude, high-velocity flight test program of Grasshopper v1.1—the second generation of the SpaceX experimental vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) suborbital technology-demonstrator—would be conducted at Spaceport America near Las Cruces, New Mexico. SpaceX signed a three-year lease for land and facilities at the recently operational spaceport.[26][27] As of May 2013, SpaceX indicated that they did not yet know how many jobs would move from McGregor, Texas to New Mexico to support the second phase of VTVL Grasshopper testing.[28] SpaceX completed the low-altitude version 1.0 Grasshopper testing in October 2013.[29]

Prior to May 2013, SpaceX had been planning to do these high-altitude tests at US Government's New Mexico high-altitude flight test facility—White Sands Missile Range—which is located on land adjacent and to the east of Spaceport America.[26]

In 2013, SpaceX constructed a 30-by-30-meter (98 ft × 98 ft) pad at Spaceport America, 7 kilometers (4.3 mi) southwest of the spaceport's main campus, and will lease the pad for US$6,600 per month plus US$25,000 per Grasshopper flight. The spaceport administrator expected SpaceX to be operational at the Spaceport between October 2013 and February 2014, and anticipated that the lease payments would begin at that time.[30][31]

The testing is expected to start in New Mexico only after low-altitude initial flight tests of the Grasshopper v1.1—also known as Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) development vehicle—are accomplished in Texas at the SpaceX Rocket Development and Test Facility.[32]

By May 2014, SpaceX had expended more than US$2 million on construction of the New Mexico facility, and is using more than 20 local firms to work on the project. Work items have included modifying the Range Operations Plan as well as a variety of fire-prevention measures.[33] While in July 2014 the first test flight was still expected to occur sometime in 2014,[34] reports in October 2014 indicated that the first flight of F9R Dev2 at Spaceport America would not occur until the first half of 2015.[35]

On 19 February 2015, SpaceX announced that the F9R Dev2 would be discontinued indicating that ocean tests using operational Falcon 9 rockets had been sufficiently successful that it was no longer necessary.[36]

Instead the New Mexico site will be used for testing the returned first stages.

During April 2015, SpaceX performed tanking tests on the In-Flight Abort rocket on the Vandenberg Air Force Base SLC-4E. Since this rocket only had three Merlin 1D engines, it was speculated that the discontinued F9R Dev2 was re-purposed as the launch vehicle in the In-Flight Abort Test.[37]

Future and proposed facilities

SpaceX believes that it can optimize its launch operations, and reduce launch costs, by dividing its launch missions amongst four or more launch facilities: leased facilities at Kennedy for NASA work, Cape Canaveral for USAF national security launches, and Vandenberg for polar launches, while focusing the privately owned launch facility for commercial launches.[1]

Map showing proposed locations of the control center and vertical launch area at the Texas facility, from the FAA draft Environmental Impact Statement, April 2013.

New commercial-only launch site

SpaceX is building a new spaceport at Boca Chica Village near Brownsville, Texas for their private use, with an emphasis on commercial space transport work.[11][38]

During 2011–2014, SpaceX considered as many as seven potential locations around the country for a new private launch facility for orbital flights, including Alaska, California, Florida,[39] Texas, Virginia,[40] Georgia,[41] and Puerto Rico.[42] One of the proposed locations for the new commercial-mission-only spaceport was south Texas, which was revealed in April 2012, via preliminary regulatory documentation. The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation began a multi-year process to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement[43] and public hearings on the new launch site, which would be located in Cameron County, Texas. The site was to initially support up to 12 commercial launches per year, including two Falcon Heavy launches.[44][45][46]

As early as March 2013, Texas had become the leading candidate for the location of the new SpaceX commercial launch facility, although Florida, Georgia and other locations remained in the running. Legislation was introduced in the Texas Legislature in early 2013 that would enable temporary closings of State beaches during launches, limit liability for noise and some other specific commercial spaceflight risks, while the legislature also considered a package of incentives to encourage SpaceX to locate at the Brownsville, Texas location.[47] The Texas incentive package and beach closing legislation is now in place. In October 2013, CEO Musk said that "Texas is looking increasingly likely," waiting for final regulatory approvals.[1]

The FAA released the draft Environmental Impact Statement in April 2013, and "found that 'no impacts would occur' that would force the Federal Aviation Administration to deny SpaceX a permit for rocket operations near Brownsville."[48] [48]

The site is to be optimized for launches of commercial telecommunication satellites that would be launched to the east, across the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida into geostationary transfer orbits.[1]

SpaceX broke ground on the new spaceport in 2014, with the first launches from the facility no earlier than 2016,[47] which has since slipped to 2018 due to foundation problems.[49]

Also, in October 2013, SpaceX indicated for the first time that, depending on market demand, they may need another commercial launch site in addition to the Texas location.[1]

Crewed mission leased launch site, Florida

In December 2013, NASA and SpaceX were in negotiations for SpaceX to lease Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, after SpaceX was selected in a multi-company bid process, following NASA's decision in early 2013 to lease the unused complex out as part of a bid to reduce annual operation and maintenance costs of unused government facilities.[50] The SpaceX bid was for exclusive use of the launch complex to support their future crewed missions,[51] but SpaceX said in September 2013 that they are also willing to support a multi-user arrangement for pad 39,[52] and they reiterated that position in December 2013.[53]

A competing bid for commercial use of the launch complex had been submitted by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, who bid for a shared non-exclusive use of the complex such that the launchpad can interface with multiple vehicles, and costs of pad operational expenses could be shared over the long term. One potential shared user in the Blue Origin notional plan was with United Launch Alliance.[51] In September 2013—prior to completion of the bid period, and prior to any public announcement by NASA of the results of the process—Blue Origin filed a protest with the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) over what it said was "a plan by NASA to award an exclusive commercial lease to SpaceX for use of mothballed space shuttle launch pad 39A."[54] NASA had planned to complete the bid award and have the pad transferred by October 1, 2013, but the protest delayed a decision until after the GAO resolved the protest.[54] Following the eruption of the controversy, on September 21, SpaceX said that they were willing to support a multi-user arrangement for pad 39.[52][1] In December 2013, the GAO denied the protest and sided with NASA, which argued that the solicitation contains no preference on the use of the facility as multi-use or single-use. "The [solicitation] document merely asks bidders to explain their reasons for selecting one approach instead of the other and how they would manage the facility."[55]

SpaceX began architectural and engineering design work on the pad modifications in 2013, and signed the contractual documents to lease the pad from NASA in April 2014.[56] SpaceX is building a large Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) just outside the perimeter of the existing launch pad in order to "house the Falcon Heavy rocket and associated hardware and payloads during processing."[57] The Falcon Heavy will be transported from the HIF to the launch pad aboard a Transporter Erector (TE) which will ride on rails up the former crawlerway path.[57]

By late 2014, a preliminary date for a wet dress rehearsal to test all pad/launch vehicle interfaces and systems for the Falcon Heavy was set for no earlier than 1 July 2015.[57]

In February 2016, it was reported that the pad had been completed and activated indicating it is ready for launches of Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 Full Thrust.[58] The first launch is expected to be in 2016. Further work will be needed to support crewed launches.

Launch site for the MCT super-heavy-lift launch vehicle

The super-heavy-lift launch vehicle for the Mars Colonial Transporter will be too large to launch from any existing SpaceX facility. As a result, a new site would be built in order to accommodate the 10-meter-diameter (33 ft) rocket.[59]

The MCT launch vehicle will be powered by nine Raptor liquid oxygen/liquid methane engines producing approximately 40 meganewtons (9,000,000 lbf) of thrust at liftoff.[60][61] The rocket has not yet been named by SpaceX.[59]

As of March 2014, no launch site has been selected for the super-heavy lift rocket, but SpaceX has indicated that their leased facility in Florida at Launch Complex 39A will not be large enough to accommodate the large launch vehicle.[59]

See also


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