Showdown at 39A

Who Will Remain Standing?

Who Will Remain Standing?

The battle over who will lease NASA Pad 39A took a turn last week which was both surprising and with the injection of yet another Alabama congressman, disturbing. After SpaceNews originally reported that SpaceX was apparently the only bidder for the historic pad, it was subsequently revealed that Blue Origin is interested as well. If anyone thought Blue Origin’s brief foray into the light meant that the company was prepared to unveil its orbital launch system, they were mistaken.  While the secretive rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos would ultimately like to use the facility, the substance of their bid, as indicated in some of the unattributed NASA response to questions, is to manage it as a multi-use pad which could be subleased to other, concurrent users which could include SpaceX,  if that company still maintains an interest in 39A after being rebuffed in their own bid. To add a bit of gravitas to their proposal,  Blue Origin apparently included a letter from United Launch Alliance expressing a potential interest in using the facility, as well as another letter from an unnamed provider.   That’s where it goes off the rails. Nothing ULA does it seems, comes without a political connection,  and sure enough, in an article reported  in Florida Today,  Alabama congressman Robert Aderholt attempted to insert an amendment into the NASA FY2014 funding bill which  would have prevented the agency from leasing the facility to only one company.  Although the amendment was ultimately withdrawn, it was soon replaced with a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden from Aderholt  and Committee Chair Frank Wolf of Virginia, who took time out from slashing the Commercial Crew budget and looking for Chinese spies to express his “concern.”  Now, the smell of ill-considered political influence of the exact type which has nearly wrecked the space program hangs over the issue,  and improbably enough, has touched Blue Origin as well. On the surface at least, it appears that Blue Origin, not sure of their own time table, wants to prevent SpaceX gaining exclusive access to 39A, which is entirely understandable, but without an operating system at the moment, the company arguably lacks standing to make a compelling case on its own.   In an effort to strengthen that case, Blue Origin allowed NBC’s Alan Boyle into their Kent, Washington headquarters for an interview, apparently marking the first time a working journalist has crossed the threshold.   Boyle’s story, which does not mention Aderholt’s attempted intervention, is as always, a good read, but it says absolutely nothing about the hardware being built by Blue Origin, only reiterating that the company wants to operate pad 39A as a “multi use” facility.  (To the their credit, there is a model of the U.S. S. Enterprise in the lobby.) Another relevant fact which seems absent in all the reports regarding the Pad 39A contest, is that NASA has been loudly trumpeting (fact sheet here) the fact that its counterpart, Pad 39B, although intended for the Space Launch System, is also being prepared as “clean pad,”  and the agency wants to find other users for it as well.  Given that SLS will only fly twice in the next ten years, it’s not as if the agency needs to install a traffic light to manage the flow of rockets coming out of the Vertical Assembly Building.  Considering that the Pad 39A lease is set at a “minimum” of five years, and the one clear fact coming out of the Blue Origin story is that they would like to begin commercial flights “in 2018,” any schedule slip at all would mean that if the first lease is assigned to SpaceX, and the term is restricted, NASA will have plenty of opportunity to judge just how well the facility is being used long before any other launch operator is in a position to do much with it.  Also, and while there is no evidence the company has an interest in doing so, there is nothing to prevent SpaceX from sub-leasing the facility as well, and this could well be a point of negotiation before a final decision is made. If anyone stands to benefit from the Blue Origin bid, and the injection of political influence from overtly hostile members of Congress, it is very likely the people of Texas. Although SpaceX has made it clear that it intends to pursue a separate commercial launch facility regardless of what happens with the NASA launch pad, if 39A is awarded to Blue Origin, it stands to reason that rather than paying a potential competitor for a shared facility, Elon Musk’s company will increase its focus on the Boca Chica site, ultimately conducting a number of launches from it which might otherwise been assigned to Florida. Given that none of the other launch operators who may or may not really be interested in using 39A were sufficiently motivated to turn in a bid of their own,  the prospects for additional launches (excluding air launch) for the next  5 to 10 years appear to be rather  limited beyond SpaceX, meaning NASA has an important decision on its hands which is likely to have a meaningful impact on the Space Coast. Further clarification regarding 39B could help to inform that decision.

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