WASHINGTON — Moon Express, a Florida company developing commercial lunar landers, announced July 12 an agreement with the U.S. Air Force to take over a former Delta 2 launch site at Cape Canaveral.
The company said it reached an agreement with the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which operates Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, to use Launch Complex 17 as a research and development facility, including tests of the company’s lunar landers. The agreement also covers adjacent Launch Complex 18, used for Vanguard launches in the late 1950s but inactive for the last several decades.
Moon Express also announced an agreement with Space Florida, the state’s space development agency, to renovate building at Launch Complex 17 for use by the company. Space Florida will contribute up to $1.85 million for that work, an amount Moon Express will match.
“We are honored to be residents at Cape Canaveral and look forward to our expanded presence,” said Bob Richards, chief executive and co-founder of Moon Express, in a statement. Richards planned to formally unveil the deal in a July 12 speech at a National Space Club Florida Committee luncheon.
Moon Express had previously been doing tests at Launch Complex 36A, a former Atlas launch site several kilometers north of Launch Complex 17, under an agreement with Space Florida announced in January 2015. However, Blue Origin plans to develop a launch complex for its orbital launch vehicle there, forcing Moon Express to seek an alternative site.
In an interview, Richards said Moon Express will take over and renovate several buildings at Launch Complex 17. That includes a former spacecraft integration building and an engineering building. Moon Express will also construct test stands to support work for engines used by its spacecraft.
Launch Complex 18, he said, will be used as a test flight area for tethered and free-flight tests of its landers. “We’ll eventually be building our own little moonscape there for doing sensor development for lunar landings,” he said.
The new site, Richards said, will allow Moon Express to consolidate its presence at Cape Canaveral. The company had been doing lander engineering work, including hover tests, at a site near one end of the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at the Kennedy Space Center, while it had offices at the south end of Cape Canaveral. All those will be consolidated at Launch Complex 17 in September.
Moon Express is developing a series of lunar landers, and is one of the 16 teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. Richards said the company plans to unveil its updated lander design later this year, once it moves into Launch Complex 17.
The competition requires the winning team to reach the moon and achieve the other prize requirements by the end of 2017. Richards said the company was on track to launch before the prize deadline, while acknowledging a number of technical obstacles it has to overcome to achieve that date. “There’s a lot that has to go right in the next 18 months,” he said. “We’re still shooting for the end of 2017.”
The agreement to use Launch Complex 17 does not include the twin launch pads themselves, which have been idle since the September 2011 Delta 2 launch of NASA’s GRAIL lunar mission. Moon Express does not plan to use the complex as a launch site, contracting instead with Rocket Lab, the U.S.-New Zealand company developing the small Electron launch vehicle, for launching its initial spacecraft from that company’s launch site in New Zealand.
The Air Force is starting the process to demolish those launch pads. Patrick Air Force Base issued a solicitation June 21 seeking bids to demolish the launch towers and associated structures, with bids due July 22. The request did not include a specific schedule for completing the demolition, only that the work be completed within 600 days of receiving a formal notice to proceed.