New Uses For Launch Pad 39A: Threatening The Status Quo

©NASA

LC 39-A

While news stories focus (inaccurately) on a contrived rivalry between space billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, entrenched interests in Florida are seeking to keep new players away from using launch facilities at Kennedy Space Center. These efforts could well backfire and cause these potential employers to pick locations other than Florida to conduct their growing commercial space activities.

Reps. Frank Wolf and Robert Aderholt recently sent a letter to NASA Administrator Bolden regarding KSC pad 39A saying "we are concerned about the possibility that NASA may lease this pad for exclusive use by one company - which would effectively preclude its use as a multi-user facility for an unknown duration. Given the strategic importance of this unique, taxpayer-funded asset, as well as NASA's questionable actions surrounding this proposed lease, we expect that no action will be taken until the concerns detailed in this letter are addressed to our satisfaction."

In other words these legislators seem to know more about launch pads than NASA. Or at least they think that they do. No news here.

The only thing magical about launching from the Cape Canaveral or "Space Coast" area is that there are already launch pads there and people living nearby who've gotten to be rather good at launching rockets for a very long time. However, the weather is problematical, lots of peopel are required, and the rockets are all built somewhere else. Indeed SpaceX and Blue Origin already have testing and launch facilities elsewhere - and they are looking to expand their non-Florida operations.

Threatening The Status Quo

Predictably, It is the possible commercial use of pad 39A that has caused a lot of concern for the powers that be in the Cape Canaveral and specifically United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA launches Boeing's Delta II/IV family and Lockheed Martin's Atlas V under a de facto monopoly on EELV-class missions sanctioned by the U.S. government. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin pose a threat to this status quo - especially when they bring their decidedly new ways of doing things and lower costs to the half century old rocket launching world of the Space Coast.

ULA and the Florida congressional delegation have been rather busy on Capitol Hill working their supporters up into a frenzy with lots of fear mongering. They are framing the potential expansion of SpaceX and other companies into use of 39A as a threat to the jobs that ULA offers. Given that SpaceX (and presumably Blue Origin) are efficient such that they require fewer employees - and offer launches at lower costs, this is going to threaten ULA - and the entire Space Coast - if you think like ULA, that is.

So why are Rep. Wolf from Virginia and Rep. Aderholt from Alabama all hot and bothered about this? Rep. Aderholt represents Alabama's 4th district which surrounds Decatur and Huntsville. ULA has a big facility in Decatur and the SLS is being designed in Huntsville. So that one is not hard to figure out. Rep. Wolf is involved simply because he does not like NASA and is especially dubious of NASA's commercial activities. So, when he is not inventing chinese spy threats at NASA, Wolf focuses on gutting NASA's commercial activities in favor of the status quo.

As is evidenced in the recent imaginary NASA Chinese spy case, Wolf and his staff are notorious for their 'ready - fire - aim tactics' and just can't resist the chance to write letters referencing rumors in verbiage so as to somehow elevate their veracity. If you read the letter that they sent to NASA Administrator Bolden it has phrases such as "were particularly concerned by allegations" and "there other reports circulating on Capitol Hill in response to this lease that are inconsistent and raise further concern". An internal memo sent around by Rep. Aderholt's Legislative Director Mark Dawson says "Another idea I heard recently" and "One rumor circulating on the Hill". Apparently if you repeat rumors often enough they become facts.

Also there is this sentence that is a head scratcher: "it seems premature to restrict use of this unique asset to one entity, given that the commercial launch market is still in development". Commercial satellite launching is 'still in development"? Wow. Who knew that commercial satellite launching was 'still in development'.

NASA has made it very clear - for years - that it had use for one launch pad and that other facilities including shuttle support facilities and launch facilities were open for consideration for commercial use. NASA has been methodically soliciting proposals from the private sector for years - and announcing this fact on a continuous basis. ULA and other aerospace companies have entire offices dedicated to tracking this stuff and have known for quite some time that they are more than welcome to submit both solicited and unsolicited proposals. For ULA, Reps. Wolf and Aderholt, and members of the Florida congressional delegation to suddenly cry foul suggests either that their staffs have not been paying attention or that something has suddenly intruded too closely on their parochial comfort zones.

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have spoken of their possible use of pad 39A in a more open 21st century fashion that you'll hear from ULA. SpaceX has said that in addition to possibly using 39A it is able to launch its missions from a variety of locations and that 39A could be one of them. Blue Origin has even been quoted as saying that it would allow others to use 39A for a feee. You will not see ULA ever offering its competitors an opportunity to use its infrastructure.

Making Launch Pads "Open"

How Blue Origin would make 39A available to other companies is a bit of a mystery. If you look at a map of launch facilities at Kennedy Space Center and the adjacent Cape Canaveral AIr Force Station - especially a map from a decade or so ago you will notice that there are (were) a lot of launch pads. The reason is simple - each launch pad tends to be designed for one type (or family) of rocket. Launch pads are designed to accommodate the assembly, integration, and launch of a rocket. That means that they are sized to a specific rocket design which includes umbilical cables, plumbing for propellant, and safety systems when a crew is on board.

If you attempt to make a launch pad that lets anyone launch their rocket you'd probably need each company to create their own totally self-contained mobile transporter. Or (less likely) rebuild and refit the launch tower and supporting equipment each time a new launch vehicle is scheduled for launch from that pad. And what if a new company shows up in a few years with yet another design? Its at this point that you probably find yourself back at the solution that NASA and the USAF adopted half a century ago" build more launch pads designed for one type of rocket and then use them again and again and again.

Of course, if the space industry manages to attain what it has long aspired to do and create rockets that just roll up to a simple pad and take off and land like planes do from a commercial airport, well then Blue Origin has an idea - and they seem to be headed in that direction. SpaceX is certainly heading in that direction too. But ULA seems content with the 1960's launch pad mode of operations for the foreseeable future. As such, innovative launch operations at KSC are therefore a threat to ULA.

Modifying Launch Pads

Pad 39A - along with 39B was originally built to launch Saturn V rockets. It had to be heavily modified for Space Shuttle flights because the shuttle system had a totally different configuration than the Saturn V. When NASA embarked on the Constellation program and its Ares 1/Ares V launch vehicles, extensive modifications were again undertaken to 39B and to the mobile transporter - even though the Ares I and Ares V were 'shuttle derived'. When Constellation was cancelled and Space Launch System (SLS) was created in its place, the launch pad and transporter had to undergo additional modification - even though this rocket too is, to some extent "shuttle derived" but is different than the Ares rockets.

NASA doesn't do launch pad modifications cheaply - and they do not do them in an easily modifiable fashion. It has no incentive to do so - so it doesn't. But that doesn't mean that the private sector needs to adopt this bad habit. NASA has recognized that and to its credit has been seeking multiple ways to think outside the box and let the private sector improve on the status quo. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have embraced this approach.

Mark Dawson's memo makes this confusing statement "exclusive use of pad 39A would mean that there is no backup pad for launches of the nation's largest rockets, whether commercial rockets or the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Pad 39B was selected for use by the SLS system. Although some sharing of the pad is possible, it is commercial companies who do not want sharing of the SLS pad to be the only option for their largest rockets."

The launch rate for the SLS is by NASA's own admission likely to be perhaps one and no more than two flight per year. That is simply not enough to require two fully functional pads be kept in operation - to say nothing of the cost to maintain such a dual capability. So, NASA is setting aside one pad for use for SLS and is offering the other pad for possible commercial use. Indeed, NASA stopped using 39B in 2007 and relied on one launch pad for the remaining years of the Shuttle program.

Adapting to the 21st Century

NASA has a single launch pad that is not being used and is not going to be used by NASA. A single launch pad. If they do not use it and do not allow others to us it, then it will sit there like other launch pads and attract sea birds. NASA is looking for someone who might use it - and do so in a fashion that benefits the economy and perhaps provides some return on the nation's investment.

Instead of trying to allow NASA's launch infrastructure to adapt to the realities of the early 21st century and position itself for new opportunities in the decades ahead, Congress and the entrenched industrial base are doing their best to hold such efforts back - or only allow them to proceed in a fashion that maintains the antiquated status quo. This is certain to have one inevitable consequence: companies will chose to launch their rockets from places other than Florida.

SpaceX has made no secret of its interest in pursuing additional launch capability in Texas where large amounts of land are more readily available and weather is less of an issue. SpaceX still looks forward to retaining a capability in Florida - one that Sen. Nelson et al spent so much time trying to capture in the first place. What will be interesting to see is how Sen. Nelson and the rest of the Florida congressional contingent continue to respond when they chase SpaceX and other companies to other states as a result of their constant meddling and favoritism.

There is nothing particularly magical about launching rockets from Florida - but it does have some benefits given its existing infrastructure. The way Congress and the older aerospace companies are behaving right now that infrastructure advantage will soon be moot.

Related links

Letter from Rep. Wolf and Rep. Aderholt Regarding NASA's Leasing of Pad 39A

Memo From Rep. Aderholt Staffer Mark Dawson: "NASA Launch Pad 39A; what's the big deal?"

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