Billionaire rocketeers duke it out for shuttle launch pad

Four
decades ago, NASA's Launch Complex 39A
was at the center of the Cold War race to
the moon.
Now the mothballed launchpad at the
Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which
dispatched Neil Armstrong and his crew on
their historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969, is
the focus of a battle of another sort,
between two billionaire techies seeking to
dominate a new era of private space flight.
NASA had hoped to turn over maintenance
of the pad to a private company by October
1, saving itself $100,000 a month in
maintenance costs, according to NASA
spokeswoman Tracy Young.
Instead, fierce competition for control of the
pad by digital entrepreneurs Elon Musk and
Jeff Bezos has led to a government probe
and congressional lobbying, delaying NASA's
choice of a partner.
Musk's 11-year-old Space Exploration
Technologies, known as SpaceX, already has
two U.S. launch sites for its Falcon rockets at
Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
and California's Vandenberg Air Force bases.
Musk, the co-founder of Paypal and chief
executive of electric car maker Tesla Motors
Inc, also plans to build a site, probably in
Texas, for commercial launches and wants
Pad 39A for Falcon rocket launches to ferry
cargo and possibly astronauts to the
International Space Station for NASA.
Blue Origin, the company formed in 2000 by
Amazon.com Inc. founder Bezos, is working
on a suborbital reusable spaceship called
New Shepard. A smaller test vehicle made a
debut flight in 2006 from a company-owned
site in west Texas. A second test vehicle flew
in 2011.
Last October, Blue Origin tested a crew
capsule developed in part with NASA
funding.
Two weeks ago, Blue Origin, based in Kent,
Washington, filed a protest with the U.S.
Government Accountability Office over the
NASA solicitation for Pad 39A proposals. The
GAO is scheduled to rule on the dispute by
December 12.
SpaceX told NASA it had no problem with
other companies using the launchpad if
SpaceX was awarded a five-year lease.
However, Musk says SpaceX is light-years
ahead of the competition.
"I think it's kind of moot whether or not
SpaceX gets exclusive or non-exclusive rights
for the next five years. I don't see anyone
else using that pad for the next five years,"
Musk told Reuters.
"I think it's a bit silly because Blue Origin
hasn't even done a suborbital flight to space,
let alone an orbital one. If one were to
extrapolate their progress, they might reach
orbit in five years, but that seems unlikely,"
he said.
SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets have flown six times,
including a test flight on Sunday of an
upgraded booster designed to deliver heavier
payloads into orbit. They are being developed
to fly back to the launch site for re-use.
SpaceX has a backlog of more than 50
customers for Falcon rocket launches,
including 10 more cargo runs to the
International Space Station for NASA and
satellite launches for commercial firms and
foreign governments. The company also has
two U.S. Air Force launches that are
considered trial runs toward potential bigger
contracts.
Blue Origin plans to evolve its rockets and
spaceships for orbital flight as well and has
proposed running Launch Complex 39A for
multiple users while it continues to develop
its technology.
"Blue Origin has been looking at various sites
for our orbital launch operations for a
number of years. We started talking to NASA
Kennedy Space Center in 2008," company
President Rob Meyerson told Reuters.
The company would modify 39A for other
users as early as 2015, with plans to fly it
own rockets from there in 2018, he said.
Among the firms backing Blue Origin's
proposal is United Launch Alliance, a
partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing
whose monopoly on flying U.S. military
satellites is threatened by upstart SpaceX.
Each bidder has sought congressional
support. Blue Origin's plan has the backing
of Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican who
chairs the House subcommittee overseeing
NASA funding. Wolf and other legislators
including Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat
from Blue Origin's home state of Washington,
and Representative Robert Aderholt, an
Alabama Republican, warned NASA about
granting an exclusive use agreement for the
launchpad.
Florida's bipartisan congressional delegation
countered with a letter to NASA
Administrator Charles Bolden encouraging the
space agency to ignore outside pressure in
selecting a proposal.
Launch Complex 39A is one of two
launchpads built by NASA in the 1960s for
the Apollo moon program and later modified
for the now-retired space shuttles. The U.S.
space agency is keeping a sister launchpad,
39B, for a planned heavy-lift rocket known as
the Space Launch System.
NASA spokeswoman Young says the agency
can't comment on the bids.