Two of the nation’s best-known Internet entrepreneurs are waging a behind-the scenes fight to win the rights to one of Kennedy Space Center‘s most-iconic facilities: Launch Complex 39A, the pad that launched 82 space-shuttle missions, including the last one two years ago.
Elon Musk, who made his fortune co-founding PayPal, and Jeff Bezos, who started Amazon.com, are both avid fans of space travel. And the rocket companies they founded are each seeking a NASA contract to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.
Each wants to blast off from Launch Complex 39A, which has been idle since shuttle Atlantis lifted off to the station July 8, 2011. With KSC not scheduled to launch another NASA-built rocket until at least 2017, what was once known as “America’s Spaceport” is now a ghost town, and NASA is aggressively trying to lease out its unused facilities.
And that’s become the subject of a behind-the scenes fight between two space companies — Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin – with two members of Congress and an old-guard rocketeer also throwing their weight around.
“This [confrontation] is probably something you are going to see a lot more of in the future,” said Jeff Foust, editor of The Space Review, an online magazine. “As NASA seeks to do more with the private sector, you are going to see a lot more of these complex interactions.”
At the center of the fight is California-based SpaceX, a rising power in the space world led by Musk, a brash, South African-born executive who created the company 11 years ago. SpaceX has already sent two supply capsules to the International Space Station — the first private company to do so — and is an odds-on favorite to win a contract to fly astronauts there as well.
The company already has two U.S. launchpads — one is next door at the Cape Canaveral launch range — and it’s angling for more. Musk envisions Complex 39A as the launch site for his astronaut-taxi service.
With the shuttle retired, NASA is paying Russia about $1.5 billion during five years to ferry astronauts to the station until a U.S. rocket company is ready to take over.
“Should SpaceX have the privilege of serving NASA’s need to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station, LC 39A will be an integral part of ending our nation’s expensive dependency on the Russians for their services,” said Christina Ra, a SpaceX spokeswoman.
But SpaceX doesn’t want to share the pad. Company officials said they want exclusive rights because they anticipate a busy launch schedule, and they argue that modifying the facility to accommodate multiple users would be too expensive.
Enter Bezos, the Amazon founder with a $25 billion net worth that he’s willing to spend in areas that interest him. Two weeks ago, he announced he was buying The Washington Post for $250 million. In March, he funded a three-week expedition that recovered Apollo-era rocket engines from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean; he’s now paying to restore them.
In 2000, Bezos founded a Washington-based space company, Blue Origin, that is developing its own line of reusable launch vehicles and capsules, though it has yet to put one in orbit. In October, it successfully tested an escape system for a crew capsule.
Blue Origin has staked a claim to Launch Complex 39A with the idea of turning the facility into a “multiuser” pad that several companies could use.
“If you design [the launchpad] to interface with multiple vehicles, you can share that cost over the long term,” said Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin.
One potential partner is United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that remains one of the heavy hitters in the satellite-launch business. Its steady line of customers includes the Pentagon and National Reconnaissance Office.
Pursuing a deal with Blue Origin has several advantages — not the least of which is impeding SpaceX’s plans to claim Launch Complex 39A.
“NASA’s LC-39 is a great national asset and should be utilized effectively,” said Jessica Rye, a ULA spokeswoman.
Sources on Capitol Hill and within NASA said Blue Origin’s protests forced the space agency to announce a competition for the pad in May. The dispute also has drawn the attention of two members of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
In a July 22 letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, U.S. Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., said “NASA appears to be racing to lease LC-39A” and urged a closer review.
“Given that taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions, if not a billion dollars, to develop this launch complex, there are serious questions of fiscal responsibility and transparency,” they wrote.
Agency officials have put no timeline on a decision, although it’s widely thought NASA wants to select a winner by Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year.
The agency spends at least $1 million a year maintaining Launch Complex 39A at a time when Congress is slashing budgets. In listing the property, NASA noted that “commercial use will protect LC-39A from deterioration resulting from non-use.”
Another old shuttle pad at KSC — Launch Complex 39B — likely will be used by the Space Launch System, NASA’s next big rocket, which one day could blast astronauts to a nearby asteroid.
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