WASHINGTON — As NASA prepares to retire its space shuttle fleet later this year, the agency hopes to attract private-sector interest in renting launch pads, runways, control rooms and other facilities dedicated to the orbiter at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
In a Jan. 24 announcement, NASA requested industry ideas for public-private partnerships that would make use of KSC’s shuttle infrastructure following the final orbiter mission to the international space station this summer. But uncertainty surrounding the future of the agency’s manned spaceflight program, retooled with new authorizing legislation enacted in October, has prompted KSC to re-evaluate which shuttle-related facilities might be available in the years ahead. For example, some of the infrastructure in question might be needed to support the heavy-lift rocket NASA was directed in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 to begin building this year.
“This process of determining which facilities are going to be required for NASA’s own programs is an ongoing process,” James Ball, deputy manager of the Center Planning and Development Office at KSC, said in a Jan. 27 interview. “It certainly continues in consideration of the new program identified in the 2010 authorization act, and as we stated in the announcement, KSC is going to continue evaluating potential programmatic needs with the various NASA organizations.”
KSC Director Robert Cabana said the agency has been working to encourage commercial space activities at the center, an effort that supports U.S. President Barack Obama’s new vision for the space agency in which the president seeks to dismantle NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program and instead nurture a market for privately built rockets and spacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.
“Partnering with the commercial space industry will help NASA meet its goals and help sustain facility assets to support our nation’s space objectives,” Cabana said in a statement accompanying the Jan. 24 announcement, which detailed a laundry list of available infrastructure including KSC’s 52-story Vehicle Assembly Building, where the shuttle external tank and solid-rocket boosters are attached to the orbiters prior to launch.
Ball said while NASA is bound to need some shuttle infrastructure for future space exploration activities, including the Vehicle Assembly Building, both government and industry could benefit from shared use of shuttle assets.
“Some of the facilities, such as the [Vehicle Assembly Building], certainly are anticipated to be required to support NASA programs, such as the Space Launch System, but they may still have capacity that’s underutilized that could be applied to support other missions,” he said, adding that once NASA commits to making a facility available to support other uses, the agency will honor its commitment. “We’re going to go through the process and take as much time as we need to, given the facility, to make that decision.”
Ball said KSC has spent years working with industry and other partners to prepare for the impact of the space shuttle’s retirement.
“It isn’t like we just found out yesterday that the shuttle is going to retire,” he said. “What has changed on us is the architecture of the follow-on program.”
Ball said KSC was gearing up to use shuttle facilities for Constellation before Obama proposed terminating that program in the 2011 budget request sent to Congress last February. “That has caused us to re-look at facilities that previously would have been utilized by Constellation,” he said. “We started after the February budget rollout intensifying our engagement with industry, especially with respect to commercial cargo and commercial crew-type activities.”
But when Congress revamped Obama’s proposal, directing NASA to continue work on some elements of Constellation while initiating a heavy-lift launch vehicle program and nurturing a private market for commercial space taxis in low Earth orbit, KSC was forced to once again rethink its strategy.
Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute, an association of universities administered by the University of Central Florida that supports some KSC research, said NASA has been studying ways to accommodate commercial activity alongside government development of a heavy-lifter using shuttle-heritage hardware at center facilities, including the Vehicle Assembly Building.
“I’m not too sure how they’re going to work that, but they’re confident they can,” he said. “Having the solids in there gets problematic to other people’s business models. But they want people to explore different business models. Everybody, including NASA, is learning as we wade into this new universe.”
Ketcham said industry efforts to utilize NASA infrastructure over the past 20 years have proved difficult.
“People have come and asked what would it cost to use XYZ facilities, and NASA just couldn’t give you a number. It’s immensely frustrating,” he said. “But at least the dialogue has begun and the marketplace will dictate, as it always does, whether or not something has a marketable value. Hopefully this is the first step in the market arriving at a value for these facilities. Hopefully the government doesn’t leave it at a cost that nobody wants.”
But some industry sources who say their companies are looking at options at KSC say they are not keen on taking over expensive operations and maintenance costs associated with NASA’s aging space shuttle facilities.
“We understand those concerns,” Ball said. “In terms of what we might charge a particular user, we have considerable flexibility in structuring agreements for use of those facilities. It really depends on the specific circumstances of any individual partnership arrangement as to what we end up determining is going to be required.”
Ketcham said NASA and industry are exploring uncharted waters.
“There’s going to be a lot of mistakes and misunderstandings, but at least the process has begun,” he said. “And the pending [shuttle] workforce reductions are going to accelerate what would normally be a rather lethargic bureaucratic process.”
In the meantime, Ketcham said that while space launch will remain KSC’s dominant role for the foreseeable future, private firms should not feel limited when proposing potential uses for shuttle assets.
“I think they’re looking for anybody who can use the specialized facilities out here,” he said. “Fire and smoke is still going to be our signature activity, but the idea is to diversify significantly beyond just launch to make this a campus of commercial activities, other government activities, universities — that’s what everybody’s after.”
In an effort to gauge industry interest, Ball said, KSC hosted a workshop last March to raise awareness of excess infrastructure opportunities. He said 14 companies represented at the event expressed interest in using KSC facilities.
“We’ve been engaged with many of them ever since,” Ball said. “This notice of availability is just one more step in the process to make sure … we achieve as wide an awareness as we can throughout industry that this is where we’re headed and these are the facilities we anticipate will be partially or perhaps even fully available.”
Ball said KSC also is partnering with Space Florida, a government-run entity that aims to attract aerospace business to the state.
“The state of Florida has a number of things they’re doing to try to entice industry to the state of Florida, and they’re of course anxious to work with us to see what they can do to help incentivize the use of these unutilized capabilities.”
Ultimately, if NASA cannot drum up commercial or other tenants for KSC’s shuttle infrastructure, the agency might have to demolish it.
“NASA simply does not have the funding to continue to sustain facilities for some future unknown requirement,” Ball said. “If there is no identified current or future program need, and there’s no other use that we’re able to identify that would be deemed to be consistent with NASA’s mission and purposes, then disposal of a facility is an option.”