Cape Canaveral has seen decades of rockets lifting into space, and now it will act as home to the world's first space landing pad. Brigadier General Nina Armagno, commander of the US Air Force 45th Space Wing, signed an agreement with SpaceX; giving the company a five-year lease on Launch Complex 13 (LC-13) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, which will be converted to receive returning boosters and spacecraft making powered soft landings.

In recent years, SpaceX has been showing remarkable progress as it develops its reusable launch and spacecraft system, but it still needs someplace to land its rockets other than its drone barge. Until now, returning spacecraft have landed by parachute on land or at sea, or have been caught in midair. Runways for winged spacecraft were constructed at the Kennedy Space Center and Vandenberg Air Force Base, but the landing pads where spaceships land on tails of fire have so far been restricted to old science fiction magazine covers.

With this week's agreement, SpaceX will begin construction of a landing pad at LC-13 to go with its launch facility at LC-40. When complete, the pad will be used for returning Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters, as well as the Dragon cargo and Crew Dragon manned spacecraft.

In an environmental impact statement (PDF) filed in 2014, SpaceX outlined its plans for the LC-13 pad, which will consist of a 750-ft (228-m) diameter pad of compressed soil and gravel designed to support the thrust and weight of returning spacecraft, and four 150-ft (45-m) contingency pads on the periphery for last-second emergency landings. In addition, SpaceX will build an access road and a mobile crane to move landed vehicles.

LC-13 was originally used to launch Atlas rockets (Photo: US Air Force)

Launch Complex 13 is currently under control of the US Air Force. Between 1956 and 1978, it was used for operational and test launches of the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. It was the most-used and longest-serving of the original four Atlas pads at Cape Canaveral, and saw the launch of Lunar Orbiter 1, which returned the first images of Earth from lunar orbit and mapped the lunar landing sites for the Apollo and Surveyor spacecraft. In addition, it was used to launch classified Canyon and Rhyolite satellites.

Despite being on the US National Register of Historic Places, the effects of the sea air on the original steel launch structure were so severe that it had to be demolished by controlled explosion in 2005.

"The way we see it, this is a classic combination of a highly successful launch past morphing into an equally promising future," says Armagno. "It's a whole new world, and the 45th Space Wing is committed to defining and building the Spaceport of the future."

Source: US Air Force

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