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SpaceX Changes Tune on Lease Terms for Shuttle Pad

Space Shuttle Atlantis on Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., in 2007. Credit: NASA photo by George Shelton

WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), which had been seeking exclusive use of an old space shuttle launch pad, now says it would make the pad available to NASA and other users if it is allowed to lease the facility.

SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., and Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., both replied to NASA’s May request for proposals to lease Shuttle Launch Complex 39A, which the agency says it no longer needs. Citing the technical complexity of maintaining a launch facility for more than one user, SpaceX proposed keeping the pad to itself over the course of a lease that would last at least four years, beginning in 2015. Blue Origin, which is quietly developing and testing orbital and suborbital spacecraft, offered to manage Pad 39A as a multiuser facility.

Now, SpaceX is offering to also welcome other operators as part of a five-year lease it seeks. 

“At the time we submitted the bid, SpaceX was unaware any other parties had interest in using the pad,” SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shankin wrote in a Sept. 20 email. “However, if awarded this limited duration lease on 39A, SpaceX would be more than happy to support other commercial space pioneers at the pad, and allow NASA to make use of the pad if need be.”

SpaceX emailed the statement to members of the media following a Sept. 20 hearing of the House Science space subcommittee that focused on NASA’s surplus infrastructure. The company thinks Pad 39A might make a good launch site for the Falcon Heavy rocket it is developing.

The fate of Pad 39A became an issue in Congress in July, when lawmakers from Washington and Alabama, among others, wrote NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to oppose an exclusive-use lease of Pad 39A. Blue Origin is headquartered in Washington state. One of its major vendors, launch services provider United Launch Alliance of Denver, has a rocket assembly facility in Decatur, Ala. 

Alabama is also home to the Marshall Space Flight Center, which is managing construction of the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) NASA is building for deep-space missions that would launch from Pad 39B, the other space shuttle pad at Kennedy. Alabama lawmakers have expressed concern that an exclusive-use lease of Pad 39A would leave SLS without a backup launchpad. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) raised the issue in July when he began the letter-writing campaign over Pad 39A, and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), whose district includes Marshall, repeated the concern during the Sept. 20 hearing. 

NASA has said that SLS needs no backup launchpad, and that Pad 39B could accommodate multiple users because SLS will not launch more than once every three or four years.

That explanation was good enough for every U.S. lawmaker from Florida. The state’s entire congressional delegation signed a letter to Bolden praising the competition for Pad 39A as open and competitive, and urging the administrator not to yield to pressure from outside the agency when making decision about disposal of unneeded NASA infrastructure. 

NASA has been searching for ways to preserve disused space shuttle infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center since 2011, when it put out a broad request for ideas about using, among other things, space shuttle orbiter processing facilities, the two shuttle launch pads at Kennedy, and the former shuttle runway, the Shuttle Landing Facility.

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