For SpaceX, Living Well is the Best Revenge : A Second Pad at Vandenberg

First and and so far only SpaceX launch from Vandenberg : Image Credit SpaceX

According to a story first reported in Space News, SpaceX is now leasing a second launch pad from the Air Force at Vandenberg, Ca. Although SpaceX has not made any recent public statements, the lease of Space Launch Complex-4 West (SLC-4W) has been confirmed by Vandenberg’s public affairs officer.

Taken together with a number of recent announcements, an interesting vision is beginning to emerge regarding the California launch location which has thus far seen only one launch, the first, out of the thirteen flights conducted so far by the Falcon 9.

2012 Tweet From SpaceX

2012 Tweet From SpaceX

Based on the scant use of Vandenberg to date, and a relatively light concentration of 13 West Coast flights out of the total of 41 currently listed on its manifest, at first glance the case for a second pad might appear to be a weak one, but several possible applications could be in the works.

The first is not for launch, but rather,  as the sign implies, as a landing pad for the returning Falcon 9 first stages. On the other hand, a recent tweet from Elon Musk referencing a West Coast version of the autonomous drone ship now under construction suggests that landings on terra firma are not expected to take place any time soon.

The second, and perhaps more obvious reason is that finally approaching Air Force certification for EELV launches, but still required to conduct vertical integration of EELV payloads whether it is actually needed or not, SpaceX has decided to establish as a separate pad and related infrastructure for just that purpose. Given the limited commercial history of polar launches, Vandenberg’s specialty, that would still leave the question as to why two pads are needed, unless it is simply a matter of one for the standard Falcon 9, and one for Falcon Heavy.  It seems more likely however, that the answer may lie in looking to the future rather than the past, and the recent opening of a SpaceX office in Seattle.

Although details of the proposed satellite venture are still very sketchy, Elon Musk’s announced intention to create a fleet of up to 4,000 satellites offering global connectivity would require both a very high launch rate as well as highly inclined, near polar orbits to accomplish the goal.  Furthermore, given the fact that SpaceX is not the only company planning to launch such a constellation, it is in fact possible that with no other provider, at least for now, offering even the prospect of reusability, SpaceX may be anticipating picking up future launch orders from its own competition.

There is a historical aspect to adding a second SpaceX pad as Vandenberg which should be mentioned, if only to further highlight the difference between the company and its domestic competition in United Launch Alliance.  Vandenberg was to have been the site of the maiden launch of the Falcon 1 in 2005, but SpaceX switched to the Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific when preparations for the last Titan IV flight from Vandenberg prevented the new rocket from overflight out of safety concerns.

Falcon's First Home Image Credit : SpaceX

Falcon’s First Home
Image Credit : SpaceX

That was not all however. SpaceX was soon booted out of its original Vandenberg location, SLC-3 West, reportedly at the demand of Lockheed Martin which wanted the pad for a second West Coast Atlas V pad which the company never built.

It proved to be a costly diversion for Elon Musk’s young company. As it turned out, the long delay between the first test fire of the Falcon 1 at Vandenberg on May 27th, 2005 and its first flight on March 21st, 2006, led to a prolonged exposure to salt air as it waited for the new pad to be completed in the Pacific. Although impossible to say for sure, it most likely played a key role in the failure through galvanic corrosion, of a single nut on the Merlin 1A engine which doomed the initial Falcon flight.

Of course, it all may have worked out for the better, as evidenced by the fact that SpaceX is now in the early stages of establishing its fifth launch facility overall for the Falcon 9, whereas ULA operates four in support of its two lines, Delta and Atlas.

While the events of 2005 are now almost ancient history, they helped to set the stage for a bitter rivalry between SpaceX and the company which still maintains tight control over the EELV market. It is truly remarkable that approaching the 14th flight of the Falcon 9 family, and already making preparations for a second pad at Vandenberg, SpaceX still cannot bid on EELV launches, and may continue to be kept out until mid-year. Even then, once granted the right to bid, an actual first launch might not take place for several years. It is now distinctly possible that SpaceX may actually conduct its first crewed launch, which would be the second test flight of the Commercial Crew program, before it ever lofts an EELV payload.  At the very least, the Falcon 9 will be well past its 30th flight. Given the inequity, that is the sort of insult which has a tendency to linger.

One suspects that if ULA, the Atlas booster, and the pad it never really needed are ultimately buried in an avalanche of commercial Falcon 9-R launches out of Vandenberg as part of its recently disclosed plans, SpaceX may take a particular pleasure in the setting for serving that comeuppance.

YouTube video of SLC-4 West Demolition


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