SpaceX Gears Up for Launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — As Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) ramps up for regular cargo runs to the international space station from Florida, a new launch site to put satellites into polar orbits from California is on track to debut next year.

The company, which in October completed the first of 12 planned space station resupply flights under a $1.6 billion NASA contract, is refurbishing Space Launch Complex-4 (SLC-4) East at Vandenberg Air Force Base, located 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

“It will be online early next year,” SpaceX’s commercial crew project manager, Garrett Reisman, said at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in New Mexico last month.

The launch complex, originally built for Atlas rockets, was modified in the 1970s for the military’s Titan boosters. It was last used for a Titan 4 launch in October 2005. SpaceX plans to use the pad to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

The company reportedly has spent up to $30 million to remove mobile service and umbilical towers at SLC-4 East and build a 2,800-square-meter integration and processing hangar. An existing concrete pad and flame trench will be reused.

Two Falcon flights are on the manifest for launch from Vandenberg in 2013. First, an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket will carry a Canadian Space Agency communications and research satellite called Cascade Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer, or Cassiope. Before the end of the year, SpaceX is aiming to debut its heavy-lift Falcon, a potential game-changer for the U.S. launch industry.

Intelsat, the world’s largest communications satellite operator, last year signed up for the first commercial launch of a Falcon Heavy, which is designed to carry twice as much as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 Heavy, currently the biggest rocket in the U.S. fleet.

With a payload capacity of 53 metric tons to low Earth orbit, Falcon Heavy’s commercial price ranges from $83 million to $128 million — about one-third the cost of Delta 4 or Atlas 5 launch.

Falcon Heavy will fly from SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as well as from Vandenberg.

“[I] am hopeful we will do the first Heavy flight from Vandenberg towards the end of next year, and from the Cape in 2014,” Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, chief executive and chief technical officer, wrote in an email to SpaceNews.

Falcon Heavy also could play a role in NASA’s planned deep-space exploration initiatives. The agency is developing its own heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule for human missions to asteroids, the Moon and eventually Mars.

“It is up to NASA as to whether they would consider Falcon Heavy/Dragon for deep space missions. We would not propose to do this instead of SLS/Orion, but rather in addition to,” Musk said.

SpaceX has its eye on another customer — the U.S. military, which currently is in a near-exclusive and expensive relationship with ULA.

In addition to soaring costs for ULA’s rockets, the military pays the company, which is jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, more than $1 billion a year under a separate contract for engineering, maintenance, processing and other support.

ULA says the contract has been key to becoming more efficient and cutting costs.

“We have been delivering efficiencies on this capabilities contract consistently since ULA formed. We’ve actually seen about 5 percent improvement, year over year — greater than a 30 percent total cumulative savings — and we expect to continue to see savings in the future,” Tony Taliancich, director of ULA’s Customer Program Office, told SpaceNews during an informal briefing with reporters at Cape Canaveral last month.

The Air Force is in the midst of deciding how it wants to proceed with future launch services purchases.

“The government has laid out an acquisition strategy that says in the next block they would transition to an all-up launch service price,” Taliancich said. “The timing still has to be worked out.”

For now, ULA is standing behind its near-perfect six-year track record of 65 missions. But that wall may not last for long. With four flights of Falcon under its belt and a long line of customers in the wings, SpaceX has no intention of backing off its challenge to ULA’s monopoly.

“The real question is why isn’t a competition being held? SpaceX isn’t demanding that it be given anything, we just want the Air Force to hold a competition,” Musk said.

“If Falcon 9 is good enough for dozens of commercial satellite operators and NASA, including science missions like JASON 3 and future human transport missions, then why not the Air Force?”