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USA Today | Who will launch from Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A?

July 19, 2013
In The News

Who will launch from Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A?
By James Dean | USA Today | July 19, 2013 


Competing proposals from two billionaire-backed private space firms have complicated NASA's plan to lease a former Apollo and shuttle launch pad it no longer needs and can't afford to maintain.

NASA was close to an agreement on a 15-year lease of Florida's Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A to SpaceX, which could use it in the next few years for launches of astronauts to the International Space Station and for a planned heavy-lift Falcon rocket.

But Blue Origin, which has not yet flown a vehicle in space but may compete with SpaceX long-term, has instead proposed taking over the pad and equipping it to serve multiple launch providers, including SpaceX.

"We believe the fullest commercial use of that facility is as a multi-user pad, and we think we've got the long-term financial commitment and the technical ability to make it successful," said Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin.

NASA is looking for commercial operators to take over the historic seaside pad that debuted with the first Saturn V blastoff in 1967 and was last used in 2011 for the final shuttle launch.

The agency hopes to lease the mothballed pad by Oct. 1, when it plans to stop funding upkeep of a facility for which it has "no foreseeable" need.

NASA would not comment on proposals under evaluation, which had to detail plans for shared or exclusive use for at least five years.

The issue surfaced Wednesday on Capitol Hill when an Alabama congressman filed an amendment to a proposed NASA spending plan that would prevent the agency from awarding the pad to any user exclusively.

U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt later withdrew his amendment, saying he would draft a letter expressing concerns with U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees NASA funding.

Several U.S. launch companies did not submit proposals to use pad 39A, including ATK, Orbital Sciences Corp. and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture owned by The Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

ULA, however, which builds Atlas V and Delta IV rockets in Alabama and is competing with SpaceX to launch NASA crews and potentially national security satellites, has written Blue Origin a letter supporting its concept for Launch Complex 39.

"United Launch Alliance is always interested in working with our partners in the aerospace industry to explore cost-effective solutions utilizing infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center, including LC-39," said ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye.

Pad 39A could also serve as a backup to ULA's two existing launch complexes at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Rye said, "providing an added measure of assured access for critical national security and civil missions, or provide additional launch capacity should future launch rates increase."

SpaceX would not comment, but is believed to want exclusive use of 39A to carry out its missions and justify the cost of modifying the facility for its vehicles.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX was started by Elon Musk, who made his initial fortune as co-founder of PayPal and now has contracts to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and launch numerous commercial satellites.

Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin is backed by Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of The company tests vehicles and plans suborbital flights from its own launch site in West Texas.

Blue Origin proposes to run pad 39A as a Federal Aviation Administration-licensed spaceport. The company would pay for annual operations and maintenance costs and for upgrades that would enable other companies to launch by 2015.

Blue Origin anticipates being ready to perform its own orbital launches by 2018, Meyerson said.

The concept appears to fit NASA's stated goal to transform Kennedy Space Center into a multi-user spaceport.

In addition to possibilities at pad 39A, NASA already identifies the pad it will use to launch human exploration missions — 39B — as a "clean" pad that can also support other launchers.

But simple as it sounds, the industry has not yet embraced shared use of launch pads.

No company wants to be dependent on a competitor for access to a pad or risk losing access indefinitely because someone else has a serious accident.

"We really believe a multi-user site can work," said Meyerson, adding it could lower costs for all the pad's users. "We believe we can make it work. So our opposition is not over an individual company, it's over an exclusive-user arrangement."

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have expressed interest in commercial launch sites outside the Cape's existing government-controlled facilities, including one Space Florida has proposed at the north end of KSC and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge that is slated to undergo an environmental impact study soon.

A SpaceX spokeswoman said the company would continue to pursue a privately operated pad at the Shiloh site or in other states regardless of what happens with pad 39A, to support its growing number of commercial launches.

Blue Origin also is exploring orbital launch site options in multiple states, but ultimately plans to pick one.

"There's a lot that has to happen before we would drop the Shiloh option, but yeah, if we select 39A, that's the site we would operate out of," said Meyerson.

NASA plans to evaluate each proposal's technical approach and financial ability to run pad 39A "in a manner that supports the fullest commercial use of space."

The complex today is still defined by a shuttle service tower that stretches 350 feet above the pad's base. Any new tenants will pay for modifications and likely will want to build processing facilities nearby.

The shuttle towers are gone at pad 39B a mile-and-a-half up the coast, which NASA is overhauling for use by its own Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule. Their first unmanned test launch is targeted for 2017.

NASA requested that three historic artifacts be preserved at 39A: the shuttle crew access arm, the arm that held a "beanie cap" vent over shuttle external tanks, and an Apollo-era emergency escape bunker.


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