Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Fixer Upper

Click the arrow to watch a March 2015 KSC commercial partnership promotional film. Video source: NASAKennedy YouTube channel.

The last launch from Kennedy Space Center was July 8, 2011, when the Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis launched from Pad 39A.

And so began a battle for the hearts and minds of those working at KSC.

Ever since it opened in 1963, KSC has been focused on servicing a lone government launch program — first the Apollo era, and then the Space Shuttle.

The Obama administration envisioned the facility becoming a multi-user spaceport, both government and commercial. This riled many of the old guard, NASA civil servants and their contractors, who had long enjoyed the notion that they had a guaranteed government job with compensation far beyond what was comparable in the private sector.

Introducing competition at KSC was heretical, if not downright evil. A number of KSC workers believed they had some sort of divine right to taxpayer dollars, proceeding at a pace they saw fit, working on whatever program NASA engineers deemed appropriate. Accountability? Consequences? Lower wages comparable to the private sector? Blasphemy!

But others, including Obama political appointees running NASA, believed the agency could no longer sustain itself with that kind of attitude, especially after the failure of the Constellation program — just the latest in a series of NASA program cost overruns, delays and inevitable cancellations.

Four years later, KSC is slowly transforming itself into a multiuser facility with commercial tenants, although some facilities are lacking customers and other facilities are still in government hands.

The most obvious transformations are at the two launch pads.

As I've chronicled in photos this year, Pad 39A is being renovated by SpaceX for its new Falcon Heavy rocket, as well as the Falcon 9. Click here for the most recent photos. SpaceX hopes to have its first Falcon Heavy test firing on Pad 39A by the end of 2015, with crew Dragon launches to the International Space Station by 2017.

Pad 39B, the government program pad, continues its renovations at a more leisurely pace typical of Constellation and its failed predecessors. published on May 9 a detailed article about Pad 39B renovations, including a project called the Deployable Launch System (DLS) or “Launch Pad in a Box” which KSC hopes will lure commercial launchers with smaller payloads to use the pad.

Pad 39B reverted to its original Apollo-era clean pad configuration after the Constellation Ares I-X test flight in October 2009. KSC envisioned commercial users leasing one of the three existing mobile launchers dating back to the 1960s, but no company stepped forward. The vertical integration and transfer approach favored by Wernher von Braun a half-century ago has proven more expensive and cumbersome than horizontal integration, as demonstrated by SpaceX at the Cape's Pad 40. The SpaceX Pad 39A will also have horizontal integration. At the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Orbital ATK uses horizontal integration for its commercial launcher, the Antares.

The DLS hopes to attract “small class” launches with a vertical integration in the Vehicle Assembly Building, then delivery to the pad on a “a wheeled flatbed transporter” instead of the half-century old Crawler Transporter.

As for 39B's primary tenant, Space Launch System on paper is scheduled to launch by the end of 2018, but anecdotal evidence — including congressional testimony by NASA executives — suggests that the first test flight may slip into 2019 or even later. The 2010 congressional legislation mandating SLS ordered the first uncrewed test flight by December 31, 2016, but that appears to be at least two years too optimistic.

One has to wonder how much longer Congress will tolerate SLS slips at 39B while SpaceX flies its far more affordable Falcon Heavy at 39A.

A map showing existing and potential vertical launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. Click to view the image at a larger size. Image source: NASA via Florida Today.

Even though KSC has yet to find a commercial tenant for Pad 39B, that hasn't deterred facility executives from dreaming of more launch pads.

An article posted May 8 on the Florida Today web site reports that NASA executives are proposing commercial pads within KSC boundaries, including a small vehicle launch site that would be dubbed Launch Complex 42. Also proposed are full-scale pads 39C and 39D.

Space Florida, a state agency charged with attracting commercial users to the Space Coast, believes that such facilities won't attract customers because the private sector is stifled by the bureaucracy that goes with having a government landlord. That's why SpaceX chose to build a commercial spaceport near Boca Chica, Texas and now Blue Origin is looking at sites other than the Space Coast for its launch vehicles.

The landlord issue could be resolved by KSC turning over land for commercial pads to Space Florida, but so far KSC executives have rejected that idea.

Space Florida has also been negotiating a lease for the former Shuttle runway, but that too has faced bureaucratic obstacles. A tentative agreement was announced in July 2013, but nearly two years later a final agreement hasn't been signed.

A January 2015 Daytona Beach News-Journal article reported, “After 18 months of negotiations, Space Florida is awaiting final approval of its contract with NASA to use the former shuttle landing facility.” The article quoted NASA and Space Florida executives as saying the deal should be final by the end of January, but here we are in May and a signed deal has not been announced. Potential commercial tenants such as Stratolaunch, XCOR and Swiss Space Systems can't negotiate a lease with Space Florida until the NASA deal is done.

Film footage of the June 2010 Exploration Park groundbreaking. Video source: ThePizzutiCompanies YouTube channel.

Just outside KSC's Gate 2 but still on NASA property, Exploration Park still hasn't begun construction of a tenant facility almost five years after breaking ground. The project is managed by Space Florida but the land is still owned by NASA.

A Boeing X-37B after landing in October 2014 at Vandenberg AFB. Image source: Boeing.

More successful has been the transition of the three former Space Shuttle orbiter hangars to the Boeing Company. Two hangars will be used for the X-37B, an uncrewed orbital space plane operated on behalf of the U.S. Air Force. The next X-37B launch is scheduled atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from the Cape's Pad 41 on May 20. The third orbiter hangar, leased through Space Florida, will be used for Boeing's CST-100 commercial crew capsule.

Slowly but inevitably, Kennedy Space Center is becoming the multiuser spaceport promoted for the last five years.

I wonder who is delaying the inevitable, and why.

UPDATE May 12, 2015Florida Today space journalist James Dean reports that at today's National Space Club Florida luncheon KSC director Bob Cabana said the final deal for the former Shuttle runway has been delivered to Space Florida.

After nearly two years of negotiations, Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello plans to present a tentative agreement to his board late this month in Tampa ...

If the deal is approved, DiBello said the state would take over the facility immediately, focused initially on seamlessly continuing existing flight operations such as deliveries of satellites and other mission hardware or astronauts visiting during training.

"The real future of the Shuttle Landing Facility is developing it for a new class of users, because right now it is only a landing facility," he told FLORIDA TODAY after the presentation. "The future is to make it the flagship for the U.S., as far as I'm concerned, horizontal takeoff and landing, special purpose aviation spaceport."

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