AUGUST 23, 2016


SpaceX plans to install two massive ground station antennas at Boca Chica beach for the purpose of tracking manned space flights, though not flights from Boca Chica, at least not yet. The 86-ton antennas, which the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company acquired from NASA’s KennedySpaceCenter at Cape Canaveral, will be used to track flights of the crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station, probably in 2017.
The company already has made multiple cargo runs between Earth and ISS using its uncrewed Dragon capsules, driven into space by the company’s Falcon 9 rockets. In 2012, SpaceX became the first private company to rendezvous with ISS.
SpaceX and Boeing both have contracts to fly crews to ISS. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has depended on Russian Soyuz flights to get astronauts to ISS. As one of the contract’s “milestones,” NASA requires SpaceX to track the flights from ground stations at various locations, thus the Boca Chica antennas. The company broke ground on a launch site at Boca Chica in September 2014 with the company’s CEO and chief designer and then-governor Rick Perry on hand. SpaceX plans 12 launches per year from the site once it’s complete.
The company had planned the first launch from Boca Chica for 2016, though it discovered the site needed to be stabilized, which involved trucking in 310,000 cubic yards of soil and has delayed construction. The revised schedule has the first Boca Chica launch taking place sometime in 2018. SpaceX said the first ground station antenna will arrive at Boca Chica via tractor-trailer in October. A thick concrete foundation will have to be poured first and allowed to cure for at least one month before the antenna is installed, the company said.
The antenna’s heavy hydraulics will be removed prior to shipping and replaced by electronics once at Boca Chica. According to the contract, SpaceX must have the first antenna installed before the end of the year and “qualified” (certified by NASA as being installed correctly) by spring, SpaceX said. No date has been set for shipment of the second antenna, the company said.
NASA spokeswoman Tabatha Thompson said SpaceX has been awarded two “post-certification” missions to ISS, which can proceed only after two successful test flights are completed. “The way the program works is we’ll have two test flights: one uncrewed — obviously that would come first — then crewed,” she said. Thompson said the crewed test flight will involve two astronauts, though she didn’t know how many would be traveling to ISS on the first actual mission. All flights are scheduled to take place in 2017, though Thompson said specific dates haven’t been set.

By STEVE CLARK | Staff Writer