Runway to Space – SLF takes a commercial step forward

by Chris Bergin

The historic Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) has taken another step forward in achieving its future goal of accommodating a range of commercial spacecraft. Although deals are yet to be completed, NASA and Space Florida have begun negotiations relating to a partnership agreement for the commercial operation of the runway.


The SLF opened for operation in 1976, after the 15,000 feet long and 300 feet wide concrete runway was designed for hosting the return of Space Shuttle orbiters during its 30 year program.

Columbia's arrivalCapable of handling all types and sizes of aircraft, one of the first major visitors was the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) with Columbia riding on top in March 24, 1979.

Looking a little worse for wear – due to the amount of missing Thermal Protection System (TPS) tiles – Columbia arrived at her new home, escorted by NASA astronaut Deke Slayton in a T-38.

The touchdown of the SCA with Columbia was to be a prelude of the orbiters landing at the SLF after completing their missions in space. However, orbiters landed at the Edwards Air Force Base in California – and once at White Sands in New Mexico – until Challenger’s return from STS-41B in 1984.

Challenger landed safely on SLF’s Runway on February 11, with a rollout distance was 10,815 feet over 67 seconds.

Discovery's blown tireThe fifth orbiter landing at the SLF – concluding STS-51D – proved to be more dramatic, as Discovery suffered extensive brake damage and a blown tire, due to the harsh conditions of the KSC runway, an off-centerline landing, and the inability to steer the vehicle via the nose landing gear.

All further landings were planned to occur at Edwards Air Force Base until the problem could be satisfactorily resolved via the implementation of nose wheel steering.

The SLF was brought back into rotation in 1990, which involved the first landing of Atlantis on the KSC runway. With her STS-38 mission tracking an Edwards landing on November 19, crosswind violations in California resulted in a one day delay and a landing in Florida.

SLF marking for Atlantis' final landingIt was Atlantis that marked the final Shuttle landing, when she completed her STS-135 mission by gliding into the SLF for a touchdown in the dark on July 21, 2011.

Discovery and Endeavour both left the SLF one final time – atop of the SCA – en route to their retirement homes.

The SLF wasn’t an exclusive strip for Shuttle, with a range of aircraft using the runway – from Zero G flights, through to the arrival of satellites and hardware for processing ahead of their launches.

Russian Antonov 124 this week, via L2The most recent SLF landing of note was a Russian Antonov 124, which brought payload nose fairings from Switzerland for an Atlas V rocket scheduled to launch a US Navy Recon Satellite on July 19th.

However, the future of the SLF has always targeted future commercial spacecraft, as part of KSC’s multi-user ambitions.

With the news NASA has selected Space Florida, the aerospace economic development agency for the state of Florida, for negotiations toward a partnership agreement to maintain and operate the SLF, that possibility took a step forward on Friday.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and the director of KSC, Robert Cabana, announced the selection during a news conference Friday at Kennedy’s Visitor Complex in Florida.

All the vehicles that could use KSC“This agreement will continue to expand Kennedy’s viability as a multi-user spaceport and strengthen the economic opportunities for Florida and the nation,” noted General Bolden.

“It also continues to demonstrate NASA’s commitment and progress in building a strong commercial space industry so that American companies are providing safe, reliable, and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station and other low-Earth orbit destinations.”

The deal came after NASA issued a request for information to industry in 2012 to identify new and innovative ways to use the facility for current and future commercial and government mission activities.

“The SLF provides a unique capability for new and expanding suborbital launch providers, unmanned aerial vehicle operators and other aerospace-related businesses to thrive in a location that maximizes the resources of the space center and Eastern Range operations,” said Space Florida President Frank DiBello.

“We look forward to working with NASA and KSC leadership in the coming months to finalize the details of this transaction in a way that will provide the greatest benefit to incoming commercial aerospace businesses.”

Should NASA and Space Florida complete the deal, the organization will be able to negotiate with a range of companies in relation to utilizing the SLF.

Lynx Mission Profile, via L2Potential suitors range from the suborbital – such as XCOR Aerospace – who were already understood to be close to arranging a deal to set up a base at KSC for the evolving versions of their Lynx suborbital spaceplane.

Another spaceplane, but of an orbital nature, also has KSC’s facilities firmly in its sights, as Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)’s Dream Chaser continues to push forward in its aspiration of becoming a crew transportation vehicle for NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Dream Chaser landing at the SLFAlthough Dream Chaser will launch from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas V, it may be processed at KSC in one of the two vacant Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs), which in turn would marriage the use of the SLF as an ideal landing site at the end of their missions.

SNC’s own simulation videos portray Dream Chaser landing at the SLF.

Stratolaunch Systems also show the SLF in their notional simulation videos, as much as they will debut their air-launch system from Mojave in California.

Stratolaunch rolling out on Runway 33 at the SLF, via L2Stratolaunch – the pairing of a huge carrier aircraft and a highly capable Orbital rocket nicknamed Pegasus II – could utilize the SLF as their East Coast home, with the carrier aircraft taking off from the famous runway, releasing the Orbital rocket, prior to the aircraft then returning to the SLF for landing and processing for its next mission.

Other companies of various sizes and ambitions may also be attracted by undisclosed incentives Space Florida may be able to provide, should their deal with NASA be concluded.

KSC’s Center Director Bob Cabana noted he is looking forward to working with the organization to achieve that deal.

“The SLF is a significant asset for the center that ties our historical past to the vision of the future,” added Mr. Cabana. “I had the privilege of landing two space shuttle orbiters at the facility and look forward to beginning discussions with Space Florida on a future partnership that will fully utilize this unique resource.”

(Images: via L2 and NASA).

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