Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ready to Rumble

A New Shepard test flight at the Blue Origin facility in west Texas posted on YouTube in March 2013. Video source: Blue Origin.

Back on July 16, Space News reported that Blue Origin had submitted a bid to compete with SpaceX for use of Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A.

Other media have dug into the story, and details continue to emerge.

Florida Today reported on July 19 that “NASA was close to an agreement on a 15-year lease of Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A to SpaceX” when Blue Origin “proposed taking over the pad and equipping it to serve multiple launch providers, including SpaceX.”

Reporter James Dean wrote in the article that United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, had not submitted its own bid but instead “written Blue Origin a letter supporting its concept for Launch Complex 39.”

Today space journalist Alan Boyle reported on NBCNews.com that he'd been on an insider tour of secretive Blue Origin's headquarters in Kent, Washington, where president Rob Meyerson spoke in detail about his company's counter-proposal. “Last Thursday's interview marked the first time that a working journalist was admitted into Blue Origin's headquarters, Meyerson and other company representatives said.”

Meyerson said [their West Texas] spaceport would continue to be the base for suborbital operations, but Launch Complex 39A would be used for assembly and launch of orbital spacecraft. Commercial operations, perhaps including flights to the space station, would begin in 2018, he said. Meyerson said it was too early to estimate how many jobs would be created for the Florida operation. Blue Origin currently employs more than 250 people, while SpaceX has more than 1,800 employees.

Blue Origin would run 39A as a multi-use facility, allowing other launch providers to send their rockets into space from the pad for a price. “We're open to everyone,” Meyerson said. “We think we have the technical background and we have the long-term financial commitment to make a multi-user pad at KSC successful.”

Boyle quotes a SpaceX representative as saying they would use 39A for both commercial crew flights to the International Space Station, and for the Falcon Heavy.

Adding more intrigue to the competition is the intervention by two members of Congress who may be representing "OldSpace" interests.

Space News reported on July 22 that Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) and Frank Wolf (R-VA) had sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden claiming that “NASA was planning to let Pad 39A go too cheaply, and for too long a period: up to 20 years.”

UPDATE July 25, 2013 — SpaceRef.com has published a copy of the Wolf/Aderholt letter. It makes unsubstantiated claims and demands Administrator Charles Bolden defend himself against baseless rumors.

Wolf chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, and Aderholt sits on that subcommittee. Aderholt's district is close to Huntsville, home to Marshall Space Flight Center where legacy aerospace companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin have an interest in the development of the government's Space Launch System, for which the Falcon Heavy is a competitor. According to OpenSecrets.org, Wolf's campaign received $6,000 from Boeing during his 2012 re-election campaign, and Aderholt received $10,000. Lockheed Martin gave $10,500 to Wolf and $10,000 to Aderholt.

NASA's funding for maintaining 39A ends with the current federal fiscal year on September 30. Boyle writes that “NASA does not have a formal timetable for deciding which bid will be accepted — other than that the space agency wants to make the handover by Oct. 1.”

Left unmentioned in all the debate is future use of LC-39B, which is now a “clean pad” capable of supporting not just SLS but any other vehicle that rolls out on its own custom launcher. The lack of apparent interest by commercial companies in 39B suggests that NASA's hope for a secondary tenant behind SLS won't materialize.

For now, SLS has only two flights on its manifest — an uncrewed test in late 2017, and a notional crew demonstration flight to circle the Moon in 2021. Even with four years between flights, no one seems to have a serious interest in 39B. If Blue Origin is serious about servicing multiple customers, I'm left wondering why they wouldn't be interested in managing 39B for NASA. Perhaps they are, but the bid solicitation was only for 39A. Or it may be that SpaceX's competitors, both OldSpace and New, are joining forces to stop SpaceX from dominating the future launch market.

The next front in the battle for the future of U.S. human space flight is being waged just west of the space center's shore line at the iconic launch facility that sent twelve astronauts to walk on the Moon, and launched eighty-two Space Shuttle missions. No matter who wins, this fight shows that, contrary to what some locals claimed two years ago when the Space Shuttle program came to an end, Kennedy Space Center has a bright future.

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