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Florida’s Congressional Delegation Backs NASA’s Plan to Lease Old Shuttle Pad

Blue Origin offered to operate Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A as a multi-user facility, while SpaceX sought exclusive use. Credit: NASA photo

WASHINGTON — Two weeks after Blue Origin filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) about NASA’s tenant search for an unwanted space shuttle launch pad, Florida’s entire congressional delegation has banded together in support of NASA’s approach, which has come under fire from another group of lawmakers not keen to see the agency grant an exclusive lease. 

“We have an opportunity to recapture the commercial space launch business,” the 27 Florida members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote in a Sept. 16 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “But unnecessary delays could hamper our ability to do that.” 

Florida’s two U.S. senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, sent Bolden a similar letter Sept. 13.

NASA announced in May it was seeking proposals to lease Launch Complex 39A, one of two space shuttle launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to a commercial operator. Blue Origin offered to operate the pad as a multi-user facility, while Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) sought exclusive use. Blue Origin protested the terms of the solicitation Sept. 3 with the GAO, effectively putting the selection on hold until the protest is resolved.

Florida’s House delegation of 10 Democrats and 17 Republicans said they saw no reason to question the particulars of what they called NASA’s “open, competitive process.” 

“Given the [Kennedy Space Center’s] expertise, it should be within their purview and judgment to determine what factors to consider and what outcomes to render,” the lawmakers wrote. Rep. Bill Posey, a Republican whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, was the lead signer.

Three days earlier, Sens. Nelson and Rubio — one a Democrat, the other a Republican — lashed out against what they characterized as outside interference in Kennedy’s affairs.

“NASA should apply its extensive expertise in this area and not yield to outside influence when determining what factors to consider in choosing partners to ensure that its selection process yields the best outcome for our nation’s space program,” Nelson and Rubio wrote. 

Since July, two congressmen, five U.S. senators and launch services provider United Launch Alliance — which has a business relationship with Blue Origin and is facing competition from SpaceX for U.S. national security payloads — have all expressed support for a multi-user Pad 39A.

In July, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) wrote NASA to question why the agency was considering an exclusive-use lease of Pad 39A. Aderholt in particular was concerned that an exclusive lease would deprive the heavy-lift Space Launch System NASA is building for deep-space missions of a backup pad. Aderholt’s district includes United Launch Alliance’s rocket assembly facility in Decatur, Ala., and is not far from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which is managing design and construction of the Space Launch System. 

NASA says that because it has no further use for Pad 39A — the Space Launch System would launch from Pad 39B — it no longer has room in its roughly $17 billion budget for the $1.2 million in annual maintenance costs required to preserve the pad. In addition, NASA officials including Bolden said because the deep-space rocket was only slated to fly about once every three or four years, Pad 39B could easily be shared with commercial companies who wanted to launch from Kennedy. 

NASA had hoped to turn Pad 39A over to a lessee by Sept. 30.

The GAO has until December to rule on Blue Origin’s protest. By law, NASA must brief GAO officials by Oct. 3 about Blue Origin’s complaint. SpaceX is participating in the case as an intervenor, according to Ralph White, GAO’s managing associate general counsel for procurement law.

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