Blue Origin Files Protest Over Lease on Pad 39A

Launch Pad 39A with the space shuttle Endeavour. (Credit: NASA)
Launch Pad 39A with the space shuttle Endeavour. (Credit: NASA)

Florida Today reports Blue Origin has filed a formal protest over what it says is a plan by NASA to award an exclusive commercial lease to SpaceX for use of mothballed space shuttle launch pad 39A.

Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., had proposed to take over and modify pad 39A to support launches by multiple rocket companies, though its own orbital launch vehicle won’t be ready until 2018.

The protest could impact who ultimately uses the pad, but at a minimum will delay any lease award until the GAO reaches a decision, expected by mid-December.

NASA had hoped to transfer the historic former Apollo and shuttle pad by Oct. 1, the start of a new fiscal year that does not anticipate funding to maintain the facility, estimated at $1.2 million in 2013.

“Several major American space launch companies have come forward with interest in operating commercially from (launch complex) 39A and support this multi-user approach,” Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said in a statement. “This is an important issue of national policy and we look forward to working with NASA to expand the use of LC 39A and its return to flight.”

NASA must respond to the GAO within 30 days of the protest filed Tuesday .

Blue Origin’s bid for a multi-use pad is backed by SpaceX rival ULA, which operates the Delta IV and Atlas V launch vehicles. Elected officials from states where Blue Origin, ULA and Space Launch System contractors have facilities have protested NASA’s potential exclusive deal with SpaceX.

Instead of a exclusive 20-year lease, some elected officials have suggested that exclusivity be limited to five years. Blue Origin expects to have its orbital launch system operational by 2018.

For its part, NASA wants the other space shuttle launch facility, pad 39B, to be a multi-use facility for launches of SLS and other rockets. The agency believes that scheduling will not pose a major problem because SLS will not fly that frequently.

If it cannot find a company to take over pad 39A, NASA has said it plans to abandon the facility to the elements.  Maintaining the facility would cost the cash-strapped agency $1.2 million.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I would speculate, by reasoning rather than by knowledge, that SpaceX wants it for either:
    1) east coast Falcon Heavy launches
    2) use of the tower for crewed launches
    3) some new heavy (or super heavy) lift vehicle we don’t yet know about
    4) some combination of the above

    I would speculate, by reasoning rather than by knowledge, that Blue Origin and ULA wants it for either:
    1) use the tower for crewed launches
    2) to stop SpaceX from using it ?

    There is the implication that modifying this facility is cheaper than the sort of face-lift that SpaceX has done at pad 40, but it has no been said explicitly.

    Does anyone have a good enough knowledge of Cape launch pads to say or speculate as to why 39A is so highly prized by the prospective parties?.

    Can someone enlighten me, please.

  • Brainard

    I’ve pointed this out before, the Falcon Heavy is most probably a test system for the booster clustering and flyback. The center booster has no downrange landing site from the cape, and so most likely will fly from Brownsville only, unless they can swing a lot of DoD business. The cape is for high inclination LEO flights and Earth escape via core stage direct to the moon and Mars.

    Obviously Mr. Bezos and Mr. Musk have come to the same conclusion, lol. In fact, I see the core stage either going direct or morphing into hypersonic.

  • Spambot1

    “I would speculate, by reasoning rather than by knowledge, that Blue Origin and ULA wants it for either:
    1) use the tower for crewed launches
    2) to stop SpaceX from using it ?”

    Option 2. Blue Origin has no product so they are simply teaming up with legacy companies that also can’t compete in the marketplace to obstruct SpaceX.

  • therealdmt

    I see it as a case of, “Why make it easy on the competition?”

    All they have to do is file a protest and they get to make some mischief for the company that they hope to eventually compete with. Maybe they can even slow SpaceX down a bit, giving Blue Origin a chance to catch up when they’re hoping to be ready [later in the decade].

    On the positive side, it shows another competitor (Blue Origin) has some fire in it and is conceding nothing. On the negative side, a company with no product and no contracts is working as hard as it can to impede someone who has a chance to actually do something exciting with the facility.

  • Hug Doug

    well, SpaceX definitely wants to use it for the Falcon Heavy (which is, by Augustine Commission standards, already a super-heavy lift vehicle), and i don’t think SpaceX is going to start on some other rocket when they’ve already got two new ones (the Falcon heavy, and the Falcon 9-R) that they need to fly.

    Pad 39A is highly prized because the pad is already designed and built to handle the acoustic and other stresses of a heavy lift vehicle launch. the area’s already set up and zoned for rocket launches. a new heavy lift pad would be expensive to build from scratch, and requires a lot of regulatory help from the State to block off the area for launches, etc. (as SpaceX is learning by doing this at Brownsville, TX, it takes several years to jump through all the hoops). they’ll still need to overhaul the launch tower, etc. but that’s comparatively simple, and they’ll be able to launch from that location more or less as soon as they’ve got their launch tower and launch support facilities in place.

  • Dennis Stolwijk

    I believe SpaceX has also already stated that they would like to indeed use 39A for their upcomming manned Dragon launches, this is because the pad is already designed for manned flight!

  • Brainard

    Have you even bothered to look at the facility he is building?

    Last I heard he was building a cryogenic engine and has already tested it.

  • Brainard

    Then I suggest you do some further research. It has already been verified he has a very large modern test facility under construction with all the best bells and whistles. It’s in the public domain. I suggest you go take a look at it.

  • Spambot1

    Wow. How many tons can that test facility send to the ISS? -_-

  • Nickolai

    That’s true, they’ve built and testing a LOX/LH2 engine at Stennis, but that’s a far cry from actually having an operational launch vehicle with a few successful flights under its belt. It takes a lot of time and a considerable amount of effort to get a team together that can accomplish that feat.

  • Brainard

    And given the magnitude and sophistication of his ground efforts as revealed by satellite photos, what makes you think he is not serious about his intentions to either compete with or cooperate with SpaceX and their stated intentions?

  • Brainard

    I’m not sure, how is your engine and test facility coming along?

  • therealdmt

    They’re trying to do something, and they’re showing some spunk. On the other hand, so far they’ve got nothing to show for it in terms of a working, sale-able product. No need to attack me for that. They’re working on it, they’re engaged — good for them (and if they succeed, good for all of us).

    Of course, the history of spaceflight is littered with facilities built and engines tested and such. Most of those don’t turn into products/operational vehicles. In fact, Orbital’s Antares rockets are riding to space on engines built for a program that never became operational. I remember NASA announcing America’s Next Moon Rocket when they launched a mockup of the Ares 1. Etc.

    I hope Blue Origin is a big success — seriously. My only complaint with them is that they don’t put out enough information to keep me very engaged with their endeavor. But, then again, they don’t have to — I’m not their potential customer anyway.

  • Robert Horning

    The argument, as stated above, is that Blue Origin has yet to do any actual flights of hardware to any meaningful distance. Space Services is an example of another company who once upon a time similarly built some hardware and did some incredible activity… and has since devolved into a niche market that certainly can’t send any rockets into space (they at least got some hardware off the ground to their credit though).

    I’m not saying that Blue Origin is washed up, but they need to get some stuff flying through the air to be taken as credible and serious. When Blue Origin was making bids on the commercial crew proposals, this in fact was one of the major reviewer comments made in terms of why they were downgraded as a potential NASA partner. The same thing applies here with launchpad 39A.

  • Robert Horning

    The big thing is if SpaceX is going to develop their Merlin 2 engine… and leave the possibility of building their Falcon XX rocket as an eventual design. Since Pad 39 was built for a similar class of rocket engine as the Merlin 2, it would seem like a logical fit.

    I don’t see the Merlin 2 engine being developed before the end of the decade though, as SpaceX (by Elon Musk’s own admission) will need some serious cash flow to get the funds necessary to get that one built or have a NASA contract to help subsidize it.

  • therealdmt

    Where did I say he’s not serious?! The fact that he’s NOT passively sitting there while the company he hopes to compete with snags a unique launch facility for its exclusive use shows me that, despite Blue Origin’s lack of working flight hardware, the company (and Bezos) is still engaged and serious.

    That doesn’t mean Blue Origin will be a success, but it shows, as does their new facility, they’re working on it. To succeed in this business will take endurance, even pig-headed stubbornness (along with a lot of other things such as deep pockets, salesmanship, engineering talent and on and on). Bezos is showing some endurance and ambition. And most of all, he’s a great (not good, great) businessman. He could pull it off. But he’s behind some obvious competitors – slowing the leader down (such as in trying to block SpaceX’s exclusive use of Pad 39A) is just smart business.

  • therealdmt

    But, after careful consideration of Blue Origin’s arguments, I hope NASA makes the best use possible of this unique facility. If that involves giving SpaceX exclusive use of Pad 39A, then that is absolutely what they should do. Of course, it’ll come down to a judgement call. Or politics.

    Regardless, Pad 39B will be a shared use facility. The SLS rocket won’t exactly be tying up the annual launch calendar there.

  • therealdmt

    Now THAT would be exciting!

  • Brainard

    Yeah yeah, they used to say that exact same thing about SpaceX not too long ago. I’d be even happier if BOTH facilities were shared use and these new developments were cooperative, but we may or may not get a better result with competition. Regardless, SLS is never going to fly and Bezos is going to get it all at a fire sale unless something changes.

  • Brainard

    I’m not saying that NASA is washed up, but they need to get some stuff flying through the air to be taken as credible and

  • Brainard

    The big thing is if SpaceX is going to develop their Merlin 2 engine.

    Sigh. Doug, there is no Merlin 2, they gave that up a long time ago with the shift in focus to clean cryogens – methane.

  • Hug Doug

    that’s a big “IF,” though. while SpaceX is quietly working on a “Merlin 2” type engine, it’s still going to take many years to develop, and you’re right, they don’t have the cash to take on a project of that scope at the moment. the Falcon XX is a speculative rocket and should not be taken as the direction that SpaceX is actually going, at least, not until we hear it directly from Elon Musk.

  • Andy

    Do you have a link to the pictures of the test facility? Are you talking about the one outside of Van Horn, Texas? I Google Mapsed it a while ago and it looked rather primitive.

  • mattmcc80

    NASA isn’t in the launch services business, and it isn’t supposed to be. Lame analogies in a desperate grasp to have the last snarky word are lame.

  • Brainard

    Then what, pray tell, are the SLS and Orion?

  • Brainard

    Sure, here it is. I was wrong they aren’t satellite photos, they appear to be long range aerial telephotos. I’m impressed. Sorry if I wasted your time.

    Link courtesy of NSF.

  • Andy

    Cool. Thanks for sharing. I hadn’t seen those before and there’s a lot more detail than the Google Maps satellite images. Good find.

    What struck me was how everything is brown and there’s not a single Blue Origin logo on anything. SpaceX seems to put their logo on every piece of hardware they own. I wonder if the khaki drab is Bezos’ attempt at camouflage.

  • Chris Courtois

    “Hey… how dare this company with two functional spacecraft take OUR launchpad for which we have nothing to launch on until *BIG MAYBE* 2018, and have never produced anything that doesn’t even crash!” And this is why Bezos is a cancer on this industry. He’s more inclined to work into the corruption (Already apparently nicely in bed with the ULA) than the actual product (no rockets, only failed or semi successful tests) and he’s only there to guzzle as much money as possible. Beware, Jeff Bezos is a dangerous corporatist who can stifle business and innovation, just for his own personal enrichment.