On Thursday, December 12th, the GAO denied Blue Origin’s protest regarding NASA’s method of establishing its lease options for launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. One day later, press sources indicated that the agency, as expected, has entered into negotiations with SpaceX regarding the terms of the lease. Although nothing is certain until a specific deal is announced, it would be a surprise if the negotiations are anything but swift and conclusive. However, it should be noted that the denial of Blue Origin’s original protest regarding the two leasing alternatives does not preclude the company from filing a separate protest over the eventual award. Hopefully, this will not turn out the case, as it would only serve to further delay a win/win scenario for NASA, the United States and SpaceX.
While much of the discussion regarding what SpaceX might eventually do with Pad 39A has focused on the Falcon Heavy, and the even larger boosters the company would like to build in the future, it is the more immediate use which perhaps should be of greatest interest, and almost certainly is to NASA.
Having made it clear that if granted a lease, his company intends to use 39A for US civil space missions, Elon Musk is handing NASA a potential PR windfall which could relatively quickly begin to change the wholly inaccurate narrative of a space program in decline. (Excluding science missions, which are not just in decline, but in free fall)
Granted the lease, presumably SpaceX would seek to begin conducting whatever remains of its now 10 flight manifest of Commercial Resupply Missions to ISS as soon as practically possible. If the company also happens to be winner going in to the final phase of the Commercial Crew program, CCtCap, which is scheduled to be decided next fall, then those launches would clearly be conducted out of the historic facility as well. In less than a year’s time then, the million plus visitors who go to the KSC Visitors Complex every year, will be greeted by the specter of not just a nation that was, but of a nation that is becoming, as work banners go up and modifications to Pad 39A to support DragonRider begin. At whatever point the facility is ready to host the Falcon 9 V1.1 and CRS missions, KSC Director Bob Cabana’s vision of a 21st century spaceport will begin to become quite real, underscored by the regular launch pace of a 21st century rocket.
But what of the seeming disconnect between the iconic Shuttle, with all its power and aesthetic appeal, and the somewhat non-descript, slender and gangly Falcon 9? Surely many will continue to mourn for the Orbiters, which exuded a sense of “shipness” which the Falcon/Dragon never will. Perhaps, but even here there is reason for optimism, and for seeing the transition from Shuttle to Falcon not as a step back, but as a step forward, a view already shared by many of those who follow the space industry closely.
It is probably safe to say that almost nobody involved with the original Shuttle development effort foresaw that the next NASA requisitioned booster to follow the Shuttle would be completely expendable, yet that this the case with the Space Launch System. Even though the Congressionally mandated “monster rocket” may literally be comprised of Shuttle components, it is the Falcon 9 and that vehicle’s evolution towards full reusability which is the true heir to what many believed the Shuttle’s legacy would be. It is appropriate therefore, that SpaceX’s efforts to pursue that capacity, which Musk has stated his company will attempt in the course of CRS launches, should take place from the same pad.
So it is not just that before too long, and after a three of four year gap, launch complex 39A will be back in business that is important. It is not even that with the likely combination of follow-on CRS missions, Commercial Crew and a smattering of NASA science launches, the pad may soon be as busy at is ever has been that is the most significant. The true gain for NASA, and for the nation, resides in the fact that 39A is set to host the next great experiment in achieving launch vehicle re-usability. If SpaceX succeeds, and even now it is no sure thing, then the metrics begin to change and the space age truly begins. That is a legacy worthy of even the mighty Saturn V.