KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA’s plan to share a space shuttle launch pad being modified for its new heavy-lift rocket with commercial users may have a fatal flaw.
“As a commercial customer, you want some assurances that that pad is going to be available in the future and the way the government’s budgets are structured, if I have a customer who wants to fly to space in three years and I sign them up, I need to know that I have a launch pad to do that,” Rob Meyerson, president of startup Blue Origin, said.
“There are no technical issues” with having multiple users of the pad, Meyerson told SpaceNews. “The issues are more with long-term commitment: Can a commercial customer be certain that access to that pad is going to be there for two, three, four, five years out?”
Rather than risk partnering with NASA on Launch Complex 39B, the pad being developed for the government-owned and -operated Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, Blue Origin is proposing that the agency let it take over Launch Complex 39A and turn it into a multiuser complex for its own rockets as well as those built and operated by other companies.
One of those other companies, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), submitted an alternative proposal to use pad 39A exclusively for its Falcon 9 and planned Falcon Heavy rockets.
Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX already flies from a leased and renovated launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of the Kennedy Space Center, and expects to fly its first mission from a second launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California next month. It has orders for about 50 launches, including cargo runs for NASA to the international space station, and is competing to supply flight services for station crew members as well.
Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and SpaceX, owned by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, responded to a NASA solicitation for commercial users of pad 39A that is part of a wider agency effort to monetize or dispense with facilities and equipment idled after the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.
NASA will keep one launch pad, 39B, under its direct control, but with the SLS flight rate expected to be about once every year or two, the agency is designing the pad to accommodate other users.
“The concept that they put in place for pad 39B is really good if you are going to do a multi-user pad,” said Frank DiBello, president of the state-backed Space Florida economic development agency. “They’ve got the mobile, or interchangeable, bases at the bottom of the launch pad so they can change them out. They’ve got flexibility built into the design so you can have your umbilicals in there, but [companies] are not likely to be able to operate that without some NASA oversight because it is an SLS pad.”
Space Florida, which did not respond to the NASA solicitation for 39A, is looking into developing a commercial launch site north of the space shuttle launch pads in an area known as Shiloh.
Both SpaceX and Blue Origin say they are ready to take over operation and maintenance of Launch Complex 39A on Oct. 1. Meyerson said Blue Origin could have the pad ready to support commercial users in 2015 and plans to fly its own rockets by 2018.
SpaceX would “want to start using it real fast,” said Garrett Reisman, who oversees the company’s commercial crew efforts.
Though NASA has yet to announce which, if any, of the proposals it will select for 39A, the issue already has drawn fire from U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees NASA funding, about the possibility of an exclusive-use agreement.
“We were not trying to take sides,” DiBello told SpaceNews. “I am saying to let Kennedy Space Center do its job because I suspect they’ve got a rationale, they’ve got criteria and they are going to make a decision that is good for the agency. You have to believe that or all this is for naught.”
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