Editorial | Unlikely Fight over Launch Complex 39A

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There should be nothing terribly complicated or remotely controversial about NASA’s effort to lease a mothballed space shuttle launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to a commercial rocket operator. The universe of credible bidders is tiny to begin with, and the number that actually bid is smaller still — just two, by all accounts.

Yet somehow, this seemingly straightforward activity has become the subject of dueling letter-writing campaigns from different corners of Capitol Hill, and a formal bidder protest has put the agency’s selection of a winner on hold.

NASA currently spends $1.2 million a year to maintain the unused Launch Complex 39A, a sum that would be nice to get off the cash-strapped agency’s books. The lease might even generate revenue for NASA while enabling a commercial space enterprise to fill at least a small part of the jobs void left by the 2011 retirement of the orbiter fleet. 

The two publicly known bidders for the pad are Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), builder and operator of the Falcon 9 rocket, and Blue Origin, the tight-lipped outfit bankrolled by Jeff Bezos that has a number of vehicle concepts in development and testing. A key differentiator between the competing bids is that SpaceX seeks exclusive use of the launch pad while Blue Origin wants to make it a multiuser facility.

Enter Congress. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee with NASA oversight, and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) in July wrote NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to express concern about a possible exclusive-use arrangement. “[W]e question the seeming desire by NASA to lease LC-39A to a single user for sole use rather than to an entity that would ensure that the pad was re-developed as a multi-user pad,” the lawmakers wrote.

An aide to Mr. Aderholt said the congressman is interested in Launch Complex 39A as a backup pad for the Space Launch System (SLS), the congressionally mandated heavy lifter being developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Current plans call for the SLS to operate from Launch Complex 39B, another former shuttle pad adjacent to 39A at Kennedy. 

Mr. Aderholt’s district includes Decatur, Ala., where SpaceX rival United Launch Alliance (ULA) has a major rocket assembly facility. ULA has publicly placed its support behind Blue Origin’s plan for a multiuser pad.

Since that initial letter, other lawmakers have taken up the cause, specifically members of the Senate delegations from Washington — Blue Origin is headquartered near Seattle — Utah, Louisiana and Oklahoma. 

Meanwhile, Blue Origin filed a complaint with the U.S. Government Accountability Office about some part of the NASA solicitation Sept. 3 — after submitting its bid. The congressional watchdog agency, which adjudicates government contracting disputes, has until Dec. 12 to rule on the protest, and until that happens it is unlikely that NASA will be able to select a winner.

All the predecisional kibitzing has drawn in the entire Florida House and Senate delegations, which wrote Mr. Bolden to express confidence in NASA’s judgment to do the right thing. The space agency, these lawmakers said, is best positioned to determine what’s best for the nation’s space program and should not yield to “outside influence” in determining who is most qualified to take over Launch Complex 39A.

Florida’s interest in getting this matter resolved quickly is understandable — the state’s economy has been hit hard by the shuttle’s retirement. What’s puzzling is the keen interest among lawmakers — seemingly limited to those from other states — in a multiuser launch facility. While the concept sounds appealing enough, the reality is that different rockets have different servicing requirements and often competing launch schedules — that’s why multiuser launch pads are virtually nonexistent.

SpaceX is candid about its reasons for wanting exclusive access to Launch Complex 39A: The company already has a large backlog of NASA and commercial launches and stands a reasonable chance of winning a contract to transport astronauts to and from the international space station. SpaceX also is gunning for Pentagon business, which ULA currently has all to itself.  

Blue Origin’s multiuse argument is less clear, aside from the fact that it has a business relationship with ULA, which professes an interest in Launch Complex 39A but didn’t bid for the right to use it. 

The argument that a multiuser arrangement would preserve 39A as a backup pad for the SLS, meanwhile, is less than compelling. After all, this is a rocket that would launch only once every three or four years — if that often.

What truly matters, of course, is what NASA thinks: The Florida delegation is correct in asking that the space agency be left alone to make a choice that best serves the interests of the space program and its stakeholders. The sooner Launch Complex 39A is back in action, the better.