Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Heavy Future for 39A

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube a SpaceX video promoting the Falcon Heavy. Video source: SpaceX.

On Friday afternoon, I received a tweet reporting that NASA issued an Announcement for Proposals “seeking a qualified lessee who is capable of taking responsibility for the operation and maintenance (O&M) of Launch Complex 39, Pad A (LC-39A) as a commercial launch facility.”

My virtual ears perked up, because in late 2011 I was told by a SpaceX executive they were interested in 39A for the Falcon Heavy. At the time, the general understanding was that NASA had taken 39B back to clean pad so anyone government or commercial could use the pad.

In May 2012, ATK proposed a rocket called Liberty using an abandoned composite capsule design as the crew vehicle for delivering astronauts to the International Space Station. Their concept drawings showed Liberty rolling out to 39B on the Ares 1 mobile launcher. But Liberty was a paper exercise, and after they lost in the commercial crew competition not much more has been said about Liberty.

An artist's concept of Liberty at 39B. Image source: ATK via

Any other Launch Complex 39 user would, theoretically, modify one of the three classic Mobile Launch Platforms to transport their heavy-lift vehicle from the Vehicle Assembly Building to 39B, just as did the Space Shuttle for thirty years, and before that the Apollo missions.

So when the SpaceX executive told me they were interested in 39A, I was surprised, because it still has its Shuttle-era service tower. Who would pay to remove it? At the end of the current federal fiscal year (September 30), NASA intends to move 39A into an "inactive" status, meaning no more money would be spent to maintain it. NASA's thinking is that any future lessee would pay to modify it to their desired configuration.

The executive said SpaceX thought anyone who used 39B would be a "secondary" tenant to NASA's Space Launch System. SpaceX preferred to control its own destiny. They would, theoretically, pay to renovate 39A.

Since then, I've read the tea leaves, looking for evidence of anyone having interest in 39A.

On April 10, Florida Today published an article about how NASA's proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget would affect Kennedy Space Center. Buried in the article was a statement by center director Bob Cabana, who said that NASA was talking with “an unidentified commercial company” for the use of 39A.

Note the use of the singular.

So when the Announcement for Proposals was issued on Friday, I thought, “Here it is.”

By coincidence, I was in a meeting that afternoon with another SpaceX representative. I mentioned the tweet, and the representative confirmed they were an interested party.

Typical lease agreements in recent years have been between NASA and Space Florida, a state agency that fosters the development and growth of the space industry in Florida. Apparently federal law prohibits NASA from leasing directly to the private sector, but they can lease to another government agency, so Space Florida acts as the middle man to make everything nice and legal.

The proposal states:

NASA contemplates entering into one or more lease agreements under the authority of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA). If a Proposer feels a different contractual relationship is more appropriate, it may so stipulate in its proposal. NASA intends to seek proposals to operate and maintain LC-39A as a commercial launch facility through an agreement or agreement(s) for a minimum of five years. Proposers who are interested in a longer term agreement should be prepared to provide the proposed length of the agreement, and rationale for the required time period beyond five years. Proposers should note that NASA will not act as the site operator for LC-39A under any lease arrangement and, therefore, Proposers will be expected to address site operation, as well as any anticipated launch operations, in their proposals.

The phrase “one or more lease agreements” indicates this is not an exclusive arrangement. It could, however, function similarly to the lease that Space Florida has for the Commercial Cargo and Crew Processing Facility. The C3PF was once a Shuttle orbiter hangar, and has been refurbished for use by Boeing for the CST-100 commercial crew capsule. The C3PF theoretically could be used by other tenants, but Space Florida leased it to Boeing.

Click the arrow to watch on YouTube a time-lapse video of C3PF renovation. Video source: Space Florida.

Just as state money went into renovating the hangar for Boeing, the same might happen if Space Florida leases 39A on behalf of SpaceX or another tenant.

Other than SpaceX, I can't think of anyone else who would need 39A for a super-heavy-lift rocket. Florida Today and speculated about United Launch Alliance and ATK as possible suitors, but neither has a publicly released business case for using 39A as they're not working on a vehicle that would need such massive infrastructure.

Anyone who launches from 39A presumably would use High Bay 1 in the Vehicle Assembly Building. NASA has said they intend to renovate HB-1 for generic commercial users. Since the Announcement for Proposals specifically addresses only the pad, left unsaid is how would NASA be compensated for the use of the VAB, a crawler, a mobile launch platform, the crawlerway, a Launch Control Center firing room, and so on.

Interested parties may respond by this Friday, May 24. The official response date listed at the top of the document is Friday, June 21. I've no idea if NASA will make public who responds, but when they do we will have a much better idea of the heavy future for 39A.

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