Image Source: NASA
SpaceX officials stated that in order to participate in the United States Air Force's National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, a requirement is to have the capacity to do a vertical payload integration at their launch site. Later this year, the military will only select two companies to launch important satellite missions. SpaceX is competing against other aerospace companies to earn the Phase 2 contract, which will be composed of 30 Pentagon space missions. These will 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."
To meet their requirements and earn the contract, they plan to build a new gantry at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A gantry is the massive tower structure that encloses the rocket in a safe position before lift off. Currently, SpaceX uses a horizontal fixture to take rockets to the launch pad and the payload is inserted while the rocket lies horizontally in the hangar. The payload in the Phase 2 missions, could involve top secret military spy satellites that will require vertical accommodation when inserting them inside the fairing of their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
This future gantry tower will be able to move the rockets vertically to launch Pad 39A, as well as provide a safe environment for SpaceX crews to insert very large satellites inside the rocket's fairing vertically. They will probably continue to prepare rockets horizontally inside hangar, but whenever payload requires a vertical insertion, the rocket will be transported to the new vertical gantry where a crew will utilize cranes to reach the very top to insert it inside the fairing.
SpaceX usually has rockets horizontally inside hangars near the company’s launch pads to protect them, the vertical gantry they plan to build will feature a full enclosure to shield their spacecraft from storms and high winds, like hurricanes coming from Florida's coastline. The gantry will be able to guard some of the U.S government’s most expensive satellites, and feature the capability of moving away from the rocket before each launch. They did not release an artist’s rendition image of what the movable gantry tower will look like, nor share when construction will begin. Shotwell described the gantry 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."
Shotwell shared that they might also add a similar gantry 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."
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.