From Atlas V to Falcon XX – Commercial suitors wanted for Pad 39A
The mothballed Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) began looking towards the future on Friday, after NASA issued a Request For Proposals (RFP) from the commercial sector. A level of interest has already been mooted by several parties, ranging from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V through to SpaceX’s future monster launch vehicles known as Falcon X/XX.
Launch Pad 39A:
The famous launch pad last saw action during the final Space Shuttle launch, when Atlantis successfully departed on her STS-135 mission.
While the launch from Pad 39A marked an emotional end of an era for Shuttle, visible signs towards the future were already in evidence at next door’s 39B – a pad that was already deep into its transition for its role with the Space Launch System (SLS).
Work has continued on 39B, converting it into a “clean pad” that is capable of not only hosting the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) but also commercial launchers. However, only the SLS has committed its future to the pad.
Meanwhile, Pad 39A was placed into a mothballed state, with the majority of its Shuttle facilities still intact.
Despite its near-abandoned state, the facility has been fresh in the minds of the KSC teams involved with the spaceport’s transition.
According to L2 sources, NASA and Space Florida – the State’s aerospace economic development agency – came very close to a deal in 2012, centered around the handover of 39A. However, this was delayed due to NASA wanting “the State” to assume responsibility for any future environmental remediation at 39A, such as cleaning up any pollution/contamination.
Without a deal currently in place, no funds have yet been requested in the State legislature, which is required in order to carry the demolition work towards 39A becoming suitable for a commercial launch vehicle.
However, there has been some interest, with the L2 sources noting SpaceX have been looking into options at KSC for their future launch vehicles, providing the required incentives are in place.
Initial SpaceX interest was noted when sites were considered for their Falcon Heavy – although that vehicle’s Eastern Range home is currently set to be associated with its current SLC-40 pad at Cape Canaveral.
Sources claim that Space Florida will likely (obtain the use of) the Shiloh site located at the very North end of KSC, providing environmental reports come back favorable. In that event, Space Florida may be willing to provide funds to SpaceX to build a Falcon Heavy complex at the Shiloh site.
More intriguing is the interest in potentially hosting a Super Heavy version of the Falcon, a notional family of rockets called Falcon X, Falcon X Heavy and Falcon XX – vehicles that would utilize the preliminary future engine that was initially referred to as the Merlin 2, but has since moved towards an engine called Raptor.
These vehicles were mentioned by name via L2 source information as part of the interest in using Complex 39A in the long-term future, citing potential scenarios where Space Florida held full control over the complex within the next 10 years, which – it was noted – would be below the time frame SpaceX is envisioned to be looking at actually building their own Super Heavy Lift Vehicle.
The ULA have also expressed interest – again, providing the economics are acceptable – in potential options at Complex 39.
While their expanding order book can be catered for within the confines of their current infrastructure, the company is aware they need to look towards the future, especially if they also become the launch provider for a commercial crew vehicle.
“We still have a lot of untapped capacity in both the production and launch infrastructure. So we can increase rate by increasing staffing,” noted Dr. George Sowers, ULA VP for Human Launch Services, during a Q&A session with NASASpaceFlight.com members.
“At some point depending on where the demand was coming from, we would have to increase launch infrastructure – e.g., additional MLP (Mobile Launch Platform or VIF (Vehicle Integration Facility) for Atlas.”
Taking another pad in the Space Coast area – namely at Complex 39 – was also classed as an option by Dr. Sowers, citing the studies and discussions that have taken place with the famous spaceport. Moving forward with such a plan would depend on the viability of such an agreement.
“ULA is interested in the possibility in launching Atlas or Delta from LC-39. We have participated in the KSC led studies looking at options,” added the ULA VP. “Technically it’s feasible. The biggest hurdle right now is devising a business model that works.”
Notes and graphics from the studies were acquired by L2 (LINK), showing an integration path involving an Atlas V being stacked inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), atop of a former Shuttle MLP, prior to being rolled out to Complex 39.
Such an arrangement is part of KSC’s drive to become a multi-user spaceport, allowing for dual flows inside the VAB for both a commercial vehicle and the SLS – with work ongoing at this time to remove and replace platforms that were dedicated to the Shuttle stack.
The Kennedy Space Center’s Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) program also noted how they expect to transition their three MLPs, with MLP-1 set to retire, MLP-2 to be dedicated to a liquid fueled vehicle – such as Atlas V, and MLP-3 to be used by a Solid Rocket Motor vehicle – such as the Liberty rocket.
ATK are understood to be close to announcing details into a realigned version of that rocket, currently known as Liberty II.
For a crewed Atlas V, the studies note the use of a standard Atlas MLP, placed over one of the SRB Hold Down Post (HDP) locations (Side 4) on MLP-2. The Atlas V – with graphics depicting a human rated vehicle with notional spacecraft on top – would then be integrated on to its standard launch mount.
A crew access tower would then be built over the location of the other SRB HDP, rising above the Atlas V MLP and reaching over – or around – to allow for access to the spacecraft the Atlas V was tasked with launching.
The entire set of hardware and rocket would then be rolled out of the VAB by the Crawler Transporter (CT) likely to a clean pad capable of hosting both commercial crew vehicles and SLS.
All studies are naturally notional, although the Agency appears to be moving forward with their drive to find new uses for 39A, following the release of an announcement for proposals for the commercial use of the pad.
“We remain committed to right-sizing our portfolio by reducing the number of facilities that are underused, duplicative, or not required to support the Space Launch System and Orion,” said Kennedy Center Director Bob Cabana.
“Launch Complex 39A is not required to support our asteroid retrieval mission or our eventual missions to Mars. But it’s in the agency’s and our nation’s best interest in meeting our commitment and direction to enable commercial space operations and allow the aerospace industry to operate and maintain the pad and related facilities.”
The release noted the assessments conducted by NASA show 39A could serve as a platform for a commercial space company’s launch activities providing the company assumes financial and technical responsibility of the complex’s operations and management.
The RFP move appears to confirm more than one company is indeed interested in the pad.
(Images via L2 content, NASA, AIAA and ULA)
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