Spaceflight Insider

One step closer: SpaceX installs crew access arm in lead up to first crewed flights

SpaceX's crew access arm extends out from LC-39A's fixed service structure after installation. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s crew access arm extends out from LC-39A’s fixed service structure after installation. Photo Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Workers at Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) installed a crew access arm that will allow astronauts to board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. The arm was installed on Aug. 20, 2018.

“Crew access arm installed at Launch Complex 39A in Florida; will serve as a bridge for @NASA astronauts to board Crew Dragon,” SpaceX tweeted Aug 24 to showcase the white-colored arm. It is an enclosed walkway, which differs itself from other open-air walkways leading to an environmentally-control “white room.”

When SpaceX is ready to send humans to space in its Crew Dragon spacecraft, they will walk across the newly-installed crew access arm at LC-39A wearing SpaceX-designed spacesuits. Photo Credit: Matthew Kuhns / SpaceFlight Insider

When SpaceX is ready to send humans to space in its Crew Dragon spacecraft, astronauts will walk across the newly-installed crew access arm at LC-39A wearing SpaceX-designed spacesuits. Photo Credit: Matthew Kuhns / SpaceFlight Insider

It is unclear if the whole gantry is climate-controlled, or just the far end that will interface with the spacecraft. In response to users on Twitter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the plan going forward is to clad the rest of the tower. He said it would look “brutal otherwise.”

The arm, which measures some 85 feet (25 meters) long, was installed on the fixed service structure some 70 feet (21 meters) above the 195-foot-level (about 60 meters) where the orbiter access arm was during the Space Shuttle program.

LC-39A was the site of the last crewed spaceflight to take to the skies from the United States. That occurred on July 8, 2011, when Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off on its final mission to the International Space Station. SpaceX is targeting its first crewed flight from the pad as soon as April 2019.

Since 1967, LC-39A has hosted many historic launches including Apollo 8, which sent humans to the Moon for the first time on an orbital flight, and Apollo 11, which landed a man on the Moon for the first time. The only human mission to the Moon that did not liftoff from LC-39A was Apollo 10. It utilized LC-39B about 1.5 miles to the northwest. The first and last launches of the space shuttle and four of the five Hubble Telescope Servicing missions also launched from the LC-39A.

SpaceX has signed a 20 year lease with NASA for LC-39A and has modified the former shuttle launch pad to send the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets aloft. Just to the south, SpaceX has another pad, Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station—that it uses for launching Falcon 9 rockets.

The first unpiloted test flight of the Crew Dragon, Demonstration Mission 1 (DM1), is tentatively scheduled for November 2018. While the first flight with people inside isn’t expected until at least April 2019, that won’t happen until DM1 as well as an in-flight abort test of the Crew Dragon’s escape system, currently targeting March 2019.

More access arms


As the Space Shuttle program was winding down, LC-39B had all of its launch hardware removed. The site is now a “clean pad,” much like it was for the Apollo launches. In the future, it will be used for sending NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) into space.

SLS will be assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building on top of a mobile launch platform and then moved to the pad via a crawler transporter. Like Apollo, this latest version of the mobile launcher has a tower equipped with umbilical arms to provide SLS and the Orion capsule with power, communications, coolant, fuel and stabilization before launch. The tower also sports a crew access arm to allow astronauts and engineers access to Orion during launch preparations.

The first SLS/Orion flight with people aboard it is currently tentatively scheduled for 2023 during the Exploration Mission 2 flight around the Moon.

Meanwhile at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 41, where United Launch Alliance launches its Atlas V rockets, is another crew access arm. This arm was installed in 2016 to allow crews to board Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which will be perched atop ULA’s Atlas V. Boeing’s is currently targeting its first test launch as soon as early 2019 with a crewed test flight by mid-2019.

The three crew access arms now being prepared for utilization marks first time since the Apollo program that three of these gantry’s have been in use at the same time. The Apollo program had three functioning mobile launch platforms, each with their own launch utility towers complete with crew access arms.

NASA's mobile launcher, which will be used to send humans into deep space inside an Orion capsule atop the space agency's Space Launch System, also sports a crew access arm. It will host SLS launches at nearby LC-39B. Photo Credit: Kim Shiflett / NASA

NASA’s mobile launcher, which will be used to send humans into deep space inside an Orion capsule atop the space agency’s Space Launch System, also sports a crew access arm. It will host SLS launches at nearby LC-39B. Photo Credit: Kim Shiflett / NASA

ULA installed a crew access arm at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41 in 2016. Astronauts departing Earth in Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will walk across it to board their spacecraft. Photo Credit: ULA

ULA installed a crew access arm at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in 2016. Astronauts departing Earth in Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will walk across it to board their spacecraft. Photo Credit: ULA

 

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Lloyd Campbell’s first interest in space began when he was a very young boy in the 1960s with NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. That passion continued in the early 1970s with our continued exploration of our Moon, and was renewed by the Shuttle Program. Having attended the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final two missions, STS-131, and STS-133, he began to do more social networking on space and that developed into writing more in-depth articles. Since then he’s attended the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test 1, and multiple other uncrewed launches. In addition to writing, Lloyd has also been doing more photography of launches and aviation. He enjoys all aspects of space exploration, both human, and robotic, but his primary passions lie with human exploration and the vehicles, rockets, and other technologies that allow humanity to explore space.

Reader Comments

Soon BFR will be launching from SpaceX’s launch pad If I’m not mistaken. Falcon 9 Block 5 & Crew Dragon are only temporary rocket/spacecraft systems that will be retired within 5 years or so after BFR matures & becomes more multipurpose to handle both crew & cargo & satellites to anywhere NASA & other customers want. By the time BFR is ready to replace Falon & Dragon they’ll have to completely rebuild their pad to be BFR compatible. The new BFR launch tower will look pretty sleek & futuristic compared to what’s there now which looks almost like a building under construction. Aslo the ground platform will have to be reengineered to accept a large rocket that will be landing without landing legs I assume by a large buffer ring at the base & clamps that automatically close to secure BFR after returning to the pad after launch if possible. The launch tower will also need retractable fuel & power conduits & a redesigned crew access arm.

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