Friday, September 13, 2013

If At First You Don't Succeed ...

The Orbiter Access Arm has been removed from Launch Complex 39A's Fixed Service Structure. This photo was taken on September 8, 2013. Image credit:

We last visited the Launch Complex 39A competition on August 1. Two companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, had submitted bids to lease the historic pad from NASA.

SpaceX indicated it might use 39A for Falcon Heavy and commercial crew. Blue Origin, with a scant track record and no need for 39A until at least 2018, offered to manage the pad on NASA's behalf, renting it out to any other potential users. Blue Origin had the support of United Launch Alliance, another SpaceX competitor.

No decision has been announced, but on September 8 Florida Today reported that Blue Origin had filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office protesting NASA's bid process.

A dispute over control of a mothballed Kennedy Space Center launch pad is now in lawyers’ hands while political pressure on the process grows.

Blue Origin last week filed a formal bid protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office regarding NASA’s plans to lease pad 39A for commercial use.

NASA has not announced a lease agreement but was known to be considering an exclusive deal with SpaceX.

The article noted that five U.S. Senators, including Patty Murray (D-WA), had sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden supporting the Blue Origin protest. In an incredible coincidence, Blue Origin just happens to be located in Senator Murray's state. (That was sarcasm, boys and girls.)

The letter so far hasn't surfaced online, so we don't know its contents or who were the other senators.

On September 11, Florida Today ran a guest editorial by Jeffrey K. Harris debunking Blue Origin's claim that 39A could effectively function as a multi-user pad.

Some claim that an exclusive-use lease would be improper or damage the national interest. While multi-use launch pads sound good, and many have tried to make them work, no multi-user launch pad operated by a company has succeeded. Pad 37 for the Delta IV rocket was intended to make the pad compatible with the Delta II launch vehicle. It was not successful, and Atlas and Delta launch from different pads.

Launch vehicles have different propulsion systems and propellants with different masses, acoustic environments, structures and mechanical interfaces. Some payload and launchers are integrated vertically, while others are integrated horizontally. Additional complexity costs both time and money.

A multi-user pad will take additional time and money. The notion of competitors collaborating on common and compatible systems adds difficulty. Proprietary information, security and schedules define competitiveness. Time is money.

According to the column, Harris was director of the National Reconnaissance Office and Assistant Secretary of Air Force (space), and held senior executive leadership positions at Lockheed Martin and Space Imaging. He is currently CEO of JKH Consulting in Maryland.

In my opinion, the Blue Origin bid is just a sand-in-the-gearbox delaying tactic by SpaceX competitors. Even if Blue Origin and SpaceX operations could be made technically compatible at 39A, it's far-fetched to think that Blue Origin would give a competitor equal treatment. That's why NASA so far has been unable to find a commercial user for 39B, which has gone back to a clean-pad design. Although theoretically compatible for anyone willing to roll out with a custom platform and tower, no one wants to be a secondary tenant to Space Launch System.

Blue Origin has also expressed an interest in the proposed Space Florida commercial spaceport up the coastline at Shiloh. If and when Blue Origin is ready to fly, Shiloh might be operational by then. SpaceX is about ready to go with both Falcon Heavy and commercial crew.

I can't imagine Blue Origin winning their protest, but it does show that they care more about their business interests than what's best for the U.S. space program.

UPDATE September 14, 2013Alan Boyle of NBC News reports on the 39A competition.

The 100-day cycle that was put into motion by Blue Origin's protest could give NASA a chance to plead its case — not only with the GAO, but with congressional critics as well. It could provide a break for NASA to negotiate changes that would somehow satisfy Blue Origin as well as SpaceX. Or it could lead to a hardening of the political lines — and yet another round of uncertainty about the fate of America's most famous launch pads.

Boyle's article includes a link to the protest letter signed by five Senators. In addition to Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the others were David Vitter (R-LA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Louisiana has the Michoud Assembly Facility, being used by Lockheed Martin and Boeing for Space Launch System. Hatch represents the home of ATK, building the SLS boosters. Inhofe has no NASA centers in his state, but according to Boeing was Inhofe's #1 campaign contributor during 2009-2014. Why does Boeing like Inhofe? He's the ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

UPDATE September 14, 2013 7:45 PM EDT — I was reminded by a friend that Boeing also has operations in Washington. I checked and, sure enough, Boeing has contributed $88,410 to Murray in the last five years. She is a member of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, hence the Boeing interest.

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