Historic Kennedy Space Center pad 39A to see first launch since 2011

Apollo mission to moon, space shuttles launched from KSC pad

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will launch from a Kennedy Space Center launch pad Saturday that hosted many historic launches, including Apollo 11 to the moon.

Standing at the press site at Kennedy Space Center, launch pad 39A, the closest to the press site, doesn't look much different than it did in 2011 when the final space shuttle soared in the sky from the same pad, effectively ending the shuttle program.

The Falcon 9 cargo resupply launch will be the first on the pad, part of Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39, in more than five years.

The pad was originally built for the Apollo program and is where Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin launched to the moon in 1969.

NASA started modifying 39A in 1975 for the Space Shuttle Program. Two permanent service towers were installed for the space shuttle in place of the mobile Apollo-era structures.

The first space shuttle launch from 39A was Columbia in 1981.

Several years after the final space shuttle launch, SpaceX leased the pad from Kennedy Space Center and began renovation to accommodate the commercial company's rockets, according to NASA.

The Fixed Service Structure, the lightning-rod-tipped tower where astronauts ascended in elevators alongside the Space Shuttle and used it to enter the national treasure, remains. It will eventually provide crew access to the human-rated version of the Dragon capsule.

The Rotating Service Structure, partially remains, but will soon be dismantled completely.

The iconic water tower, providing water for the sound suppression system, also still stands.

But those are about the only leftovers from the shuttle days.

SpaceX, which has a 20-year lease for pad 39A, has been renovating and upgrading it around the clock ever since Sept. 1, when Space Launch Complex 40, its launchpad at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, was destroyed in an explosion during a static fire test.

All previous SpaceX Florida missions have launched at complex 40.

"They've done an enormous amount of work on Pad 39A," CBS News Space Analyst Bill Harwood said. "All these systems they've put in, the fuel lines, hydraulic lines, safety systems, it's been an enormous undertaking."

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SpaceX, led by CEO Elon Musk, plans to use the pad for future Dragon capsule commercial crew launches to the International Space Station and for the powerful Falcon Heavy rocket to be tested later this year.

The company recently said it plans to launch as frequently as every two to three weeks.

The ambitious schedule would far exceed the last time the Space Coast saw launches close to that rate during the space shuttle era.

Harwood said that goal will be no small challenge for SpaceX.

"All the things you have to do in between flights to get ready to go fly, all that's got to really be smooth (and) a very mature operation to achieve a flight rate like that," Harwood said. "So it's a tremendous amount of work (to) have to get all of this done, (they) have to get their processing and all things smoothed out so they can flow these rockets through here on a regular basis."

SpaceX's Falcon 9 is set to launch a Dragon spacecraft Saturday just before 10 a.m. filled with supplies and science experiments to the International Space Station. Once the first stage of the rocket booster separates, the company will attempt to land the booster at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station roughly 10 minutes after launch.

More than five years since the pad was last used, SpaceX completed a rocket test fire Sunday ahead of the launch.

"I think more important than verifying the rocket's ready to go, I think it shows the pad is ready to go," Harwood said.

Click on the blue circles in the photo below to learn more about the renovations to 39A.



Space shuttle program launch pace

About the Authors:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.