Launch Pad 39A – vacated since the end of the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) – took a step towards welcoming new vehicles to its flame trench, following the NASA announcement confirming they have entered negotiations with SpaceX for the use of the famous launch complex. The path towards talks was cleared after the GAO denied a protest from another interested commercial suitor, Blue Origin.
Launch Pad 39A:
The famous launch pad has been maintained in a mothball state since it 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 remained largely untouched, 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 earlier information via L2 sources, NASA and Space Florida – the State’s aerospace economic development agency – have come close to leasing the facility over recent years, only for talks to stall.
Initial SpaceX interest was noted when sites were being considered for their Falcon Heavy – although that vehicle’s Eastern Range home has also been associated with the company’s current SLC-40 pad at Cape Canaveral.
More intriguing is the interest in potentially hosting a Super Heavy version of the Falcon, a family of rockets notionally – as opposed to officially – called Falcon X, Falcon X Heavy and Falcon XX.
These 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.
SpaceX only recently announced they were pushing ahead with plans to develop this new engine.
As would be expected, the terms of the negotiations between NASA and SpaceX will remain private. As a result, details surrounding the confirmation of the talks were sketchy at best.
“NASA has selected Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., to begin negotiations on a lease to use and operate historic Launch Complex (LC) 39A at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida,” noted NASA.
“Permitting use and operation of this valuable national asset by a private-sector, commercial space partner will ensure its continued viability and allow for its continued use in support of U.S. space activities.”
The allowance to proceed towards talks with SpaceX came after the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied a protest filed against the Agency by Blue Origin LLC on Sept. 13.
Blue Origin have their own human space flight ambitions, centered around their biconic-shape capsule, which was initially targeted to launch with the Atlas V launch vehicle, prior to hitching a lift uphill via its own Reusable Booster System (RBS).
According to NASA, Blue Origin raised concerns about the competitive process NASA was using to try to secure a potential commercial partner or partners to lease and use LC-39A.
“Blue Origin had argued the language in the Announcement for Proposals (AFP) favored one proposed use of LC-39A over others. The GAO disagreed.”
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The Agency have since informed all the other interested parties of their decision to work with SpaceX, adding they will release the source selection statement to the public, once each proposer has been consulted to ensure that any proprietary information has been appropriately redacted.
While the specific details surrounding the suitors are yet to be released, one company that had expressed some level of interest in previous years was the United Launch Alliance (ULA).
“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 in 2012.
“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 classed as an option by Dr. Sowers, citing the studies and discussions that had taken place with the famous spaceport.
“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 in 2012. “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.
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.
Technically, the aforementioned arrangement could still take place on Pad 39B. However, the ULA have not promoted their interest since 2012.
With the confirmation of SpaceX’s interest in 39A, and 39B’s future with the SLS, both historic pads may now be able to look forward to rockets heading uphill from their pads.
“Since the late 1960s, Kennedy’s launch pads 39 A and B have served as the starting point for America’s most significant human spaceflight endeavors — Apollo, Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz and all 135 space shuttle missions,” added NASA.
“LC-39A is the pad where Apollo 11 lifted off from on the first manned moon landing in 1969, as well as launching the first space shuttle mission in 1981 and the last in 2011.”
(Images via L2 content, NASA, AIAA and ULA)
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