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SpaceX is competing against three other aerospace companies to earn the United States Air Force's National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 service contract. Later this year, the military will only select two companies to launch important national security missions. The Phase 2 contract will be composed of 30 Pentagon space missions that are slated to take place over a 5 year period, beginning in the year 2022 through 2026. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said:
"We bid to meet every requirement. The only modifications we need are an extended fairing on the Falcon Heavy, and we are going to have to build a vertical integration capability. But we are basically flying the rockets that they need. [...] There are more data requirements they’re asking for, some additional inspection, some additional stuff that’s new to Phase 2."
One of the requirements to potentially win the NSSL contract is to have the capacity to do a vertical payload integration at their launch site. Currently, SpaceX integrates their payload into the rocket's fairing vertically. To meet the U.S military's requirements and earn the contract, the rocket company plans to build a new Mobile Service Tower (MST) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The payload in the Phase 2 missions, could involve launching top secret military spy satellites that will require vertical accommodation when inserting them inside the fairing of their Falcon Heavy rocket.
A recently published environmental assessment by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), revealed SpaceX's request to make modifications launch facilities at Kennedy Space Center and how the Mobile Service Tower will look. The document also offers insight other about how the company plans to accommodate their launch services for national security missions.
The document reveals an artist's rendition of the 11-floor mobile tower which will be able to move the rockets vertically to launch Pad 39A. It will also be capable of providing a safe environment for SpaceX crews to insert very large satellites inside the rocket's fairing vertically. The tower will be 86.5 meters tall (281 feet), 36 meters wide (118 feet), and feature an enclosure to completely encapsulate a rocket. So, it will be capable of protecting the rocket with payload during hurricane season. Shotwell described the tower to reporters:
"It comes up and kind of circles around. It’s got to be out there during a Category 5 hurricane, fully enclosed. The whole rocket has to be encapsulated. It’s got huge hurricane clamps on it that clamp it to the ground."
To move, the MST tower will have rails on the pad that will be utilized to move it from "Integration Position" the area where crews will insert the payload, to "Launch position" at the pad that will be approximately 40 meters away (pictured above). Shotwell previously shared that they might also add a similar mobile tower at their other launch site located in California's Vandenberg Air Force Base, "If it ends up being required at Vandenberg, we will put one in at Vandenberg. It depends on the mission manifest that we have," she said.
Another modification detailed in the FAA documents is SpaceX's plan to also accommodate their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket's fairing to fit larger Category C military payloads -which is another requirement to earn the Air Force's National Security Space Launch contract.
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.