WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Launches return to historic Apollo/Shuttle launchpad

Posted 10:31 a.m. Friday
Updated 9:24 a.m. Saturday

The flame trench beneath launch complex 39A (LC-39A) recently tasted fire for the first time since 2011 when the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off on the final mission in the program.

SpaceX completed a 3.5-second static fire test of its Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday ahead of a planned launch from the historic launch pad this weekend.

LC-39A dates back to 1967 with the launch of the Apollo 4 mission. Another 11 Apollo missions would be launched from the pad and 80 shuttle missions.

In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA. The company plans a Falcon 9 launch of a Dragon cargo capsule bound for the ISS from LC-39A Feb. 18 at 10:01 a.m. EST.

SpaceX had planned future launches of its Falcon Heavy rocket and crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS) from the historic pad. But last September’s Falcon 9 failure on nearby LC-40, during a similar test, moved up plans for SpaceX's other launch complex.

I last stood in the LC-39A flame trench in 2013, while at the Cape for the launch of the MAVEN mission to Mars.

It was undergoing refurbishment following 50 years of exposure to salt air and the pounding from the power of the liquid fueled F-1 engines of the Saturn V and solid rocket motors of the Space Shuttle stack had taken their toll.

In 2008 the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-124, the 83rd from the pad, sent over 3,500 Apollo-era bricks flying. Repairs were made and another dozen shuttle missions launched from the pad.

Sunday’s static fire test included a complete reversal of countdown procures concluding in a brief firing of all 9 Merlin-1D engines while the vehicle is securely clamped to the launchpad.

Among the cargo manifest for Saturday’s launch is the Stratospheric Aerosol Gas Experiment III (SAGE III). Developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, SAGE III will be mounted on the exterior of the ISS where it will monitor the Earth’s ozone layer.

The experiment is a follow-up to the SAGE II mission which discovered a hole in the ozone layer in 1985 raising urgent climate concerns.

Within two years, the Montreal Protocol phasing out the use of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) became the first universally agreed upon treaty in United Nations history.


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @rtphokie.

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