Why 39A Matters
The ongoing fight over Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A has taken several interesting turns in the past week, beginning with a contentious House subcommittee hearing last Friday, and culminating in an email from Elon Musk published today in SpaceNews, which “calls the bluff” being put forward by Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance, by offering to share the pad with all comers. With typical flair, the SpaceX founder judged the odds of Blue Origin being able to show up with an ISS ready system in 5 years as less likely than SpaceX discovering “unicorns dancing in the flame ducts.”
Although the ongoing GAO protest lodged by Blue Origin will likely delay any decision regarding the pad until December, hopefully Musk’s offer will put the matter to rest. Despite the preferred media narrative of this being a spat between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, as the political intrusion indicates, it is much more than that, and what may be escaping sufficient scrutiny is why 39A matters in the first place.
The House subcommittee was supposed to discuss a NASA OIG report detailing the overall agency problem of unused, aging facilities and the mounting costs of keeping them intact. Rather than substantively address the overall issue, the meeting chaired by Steve Palazzo, (R, Mississippi) fairly quickly broke down into an argument over NASA’s plan to lease Pad 39A, and a rather thinly veiled effort to prevent SpaceX from gaining access to the facility. The effort is ostensibly on behalf of Blue Origin, which filed a protest with the GAO over the process NASA has followed in the leasing effort, but both the inclusion of a letter of support from ULA, as well as a separate letters from members of the House and Senate, representing “OldSpace” districts and by extension, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and ATK, who are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at SpaceX in an effort to slow that company’s progress wherever possible, indicate that Blue Origin is at best a minor player in this battle.
Here are the four letters:
Letter in support of Blue Origin/ULA from the Senate
And from the House:
Florida Senate Letter:
Florida House Delegation Letter:
There are several notable aspects to the first two letters. Somewhat amusingly, both seem to assert that since the taxpayer spent a great deal of money building the facility, any lessor should be equally motivated to spend a commiserate amount to maintain it.
From the first: “The taxpayers have invested nearly $1 billion into LC-39A, yet the lease requires only minimal costs to be borne by the selected company, clearly not a fiscally responsible way to handle such a vital public asset.”
And from the second : “We are also concerned about the terms of the proposed lease, which would essentially make this asset available at minimal cost to the selected entity – hardly a fair market rate for the value of the leased asset. Given that taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions, if not a billion, dollars in to develop this launch complex, there are serious questions of fiscal responsibility and transparency.”
Market value is nothing more than what someone is willing to pay at a given time, and at this point it time, as evidenced by the conspicuous absence of a serious bid from other providers, and NASA’s own assessment stated in a plan to demolish the pad if it is not leased, while the historic value is very high, the market value is painfully low. Blue Origin’s plan to lease 39A to other launch providers, a necessary distraction, since it is not going to be in a position to use the facility directly in the 5 year frame under discussion, is rendered somewhat moot by the fact that no other entity besides SpaceX found the value high enough to put in a bid.
And that is the crux of the matter. Quite simply, there is absolutely no way United Launch Alliance, tied to an outdated “stacking” mode for the Atlas V booster, is going to commit the resources necessary to convert pad 39A to accommodate its particular concept of crewed launches. The last two Atlas V facilities, at SLC-41 and Vandenberg respectively, cost then owner Lockheed Martin over $200 million each. Letters offered in support are free. SpaceX on the other hand, having learned and applied from others, can afford to make use of 39A precisely because it utilizes a more efficient horizontal integration which naturally lends itself to “clean pad” format.
And then there is the very inconvenient, but so far seldom discussed issue of pricing and its likely effect on the Commercial Crew process. ULA goes to great lengths to conceal its prices, which is perhaps an understandable tactic when one considers where they appear to be, but the public disclosures of NASA launch procurement offer occasional glimpses behind the curtain. The upcoming launch of a barebones Atlas V 401 booster for the Mars Maven mission was procured at $187 million, an award granted before the recent round of highly publicized EELV cost increases. The most recent public launch award, a 411 configuration for NASA’s 2016 OSIRIS-Rex mission at $183.5 million, shows the results of modest cost cutting measures on the part of ULA, but more significantly, also indicates a limit has probably already been reached.
One thing is for certain; with the necessity to add both a crew vehicle adapter as well as a second, ($30 million dollar plus) RL-10 engine to the Atlas V upper stage in order to allow for a safe ascent profile, the Commercial Crew Atlas V with either the Boeing or SNC vehicles, is going to be at least twice the cost of the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon combination. And that of course, is assuming that the ULA product continues to receive its EELV Launch Capability contract subsidy, despite its supporters’ newfound devotion towards “competition” such as that expressed by Alabama Representative Mo Brooks in decrying the proposed lease to SpaceX during the course of last week’s hearing. A full accounting of the cost differential would yield an even greater difference.
Quite simply, ULA is perfectly aware that from a financial standpoint at least, its Commercial Crew prospects are not looking good, and despite long range efforts such as the joint ULA/XCOR upper stage engine work, there is no practical way to address what will be revealed to be a gaping cost disparity for identical services in the near term, thus the desperate turn to its preferred innovation of choice, political manipulation, to hinder the competition.
Regardless of the motivations, which Musk describes as “malicious,” the real question is this. What is the value to NASA, and to the national interest, in seeing 39A put to actual use as soon as possible? Very likely it is quite a bit.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex annually hosts more than 1.5 million visitors from across the U.S. and around the planet to a world class museum facility which highlights the pinnacle of U.S. national accomplishments, and it is an experience which has become even more compelling with the addition of the Space Shuttle Atlantis display. At the same time though, it is also deeply unsettling. Situated as the KSC Visitor Center is, not in a sterile museum environment, but at the very site of the history it encapsulates, KSC, and by extension NASA, is a victim of its own history.
One cannot look at the imposing VAB and the two Saturn/ Shuttle pads without getting a sinking feeling that America’s best days are in the rear view mirror. NASA can issue all the “We are the explorers” PR videos it wants, but with the first crewed flight of the SLS almost a decade away, and only one test flight in between, and further schedule slips likely, both are so far over the horizon as to actually reinforce the notion that we just haven’t got “the right stuff” anymore.
The truth of course is something very different. As both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have demonstrated through the COTS program, NASA has made truly remarkable progress in developing the infrastructure to support the ongoing American human space flight program taking place at ISS. Unfortunately, with OSC launching out of Wallops, and SpaceX currently launching on military property out of adjacent, but far less conspicuous, (and accessible) SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the world’s most visible, and most famous space launch pad, 39A, is painfully and obviously vacant, particularly to the tens of thousands of visitors who take the bus tours to the Pad 39 observation gantry and Saturn V display. It is in a word, sad.
Bringing the pad back to life quickly, with actual as opposed to vaporware launch vehicles under preparation and lifting off, particularly as Musk’s response indicates, on crewed NASA missions to ISS, will not only keep the pad active and actively maintained, but will also lend a justifiable and much needed sense of progress and value to NASA’s overall space program in the most direct manner possible, with compelling visual evidence. It is likely to be the best PR NASA gets in the coming years, and SpaceX is willing to pay for it. Furthermore, with SpaceX more than a year ahead of Boeing in their respective Commercial Crew schedules, preparation for activities at the 39A are likely to begin in very short order. The value to the agency, and to the nation, as VISA might say; “Priceless.”
It will also be valuable to whatever company whose banner, and booster, is on display at the pad. If that should happen to benefit SpaceX, so be it. In producing the first new all American launch vehicle in years, and then using it to support the nation’s commitment to the International Space Station as the only supplier for two way transportation, it has honor which has been well earned. ULA knows this as well, and that is quite likely the real reason behind the last ditch effort to deny SpaceX ready access to 39A.
It is also the reason why the matter needs to be resolved in favor of SpaceX, and the American interest.