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SpaceX, finishing launch pad work, shuffles launch schedule

The first flight of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from a repurposed shuttle pad at the Kennedy Space Center is now targeted for around the middle of February to give the company more time to complete extensive modifications and testing of new launch pad systems and support equipment, officials said Sunday.

SpaceX had been gearing up to launch an EchoStar communications satellite from complex 39A at the Florida spaceport as early as this week, but that flight now will follow the launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship carrying supplies to the International Space Station.

It will be the 10th commercial resupply mission launched to the station by SpaceX and the company’s first launch from Florida since a spectacular Sept. 1 explosion during a pre-flight test at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station that destroyed a Falcon 9 booster and its communications satellite payload.

SpaceX has not released any details about the extent of the damage to the Air Force launch complex, but the company already was in the process of modifying pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center to convert it for use by the Falcon 9. In the wake of the explosion, the company announced the next Florida launch would use the modified shuttle pad.

A large hanger has been built at the base of the pad to house rockets and satellites being prepared for launch. The boosters, mounted horizontally on a mobile transporter, will be hauled to the top of the elevated pad and rotated vertical for launch using a powerful hydraulic system.

Engineers and technicians have been working long hours to complete the pad modifications and the erector could be seen rising to vertical and then rotating back to horizontal multiple times over the past several days.

But SpaceX has provided no details and it was not known with any certainty when the company might attempt a launching. The EchoStar flight had been listed on the Air Force Eastern Range launch schedule, but SpaceX never announced an official launch date.

In any case, SpaceX announced Sunday that “its first launch from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be the CRS-10 mission to the International Space Station.”

“The launch is currently targeted for no earlier than mid-February,” the company said. “Following the launch of CRS-10, first commercial mission from 39A is currently slated to be EchoStar 23. This schedule change allows time for additional testing of ground systems ahead of the CRS-10 mission. The launch vehicles, Dragon, and the EchoStar satellite are all healthy and prepared for launch.”

SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Jan. 14, boosting 10 Iridium satellite telephone relay stations into orbit.

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