By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor
NASA selected SpaceX to lease Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center because it had a firm manifest of launches while rival Blue Origin’s plan to transfer the former space shuttle launch pad into a multi-user facility lacked actual users, according to the space agency’s selection statement.
“Blue Origin’s multi-use approach involved uncertainty regarding the extent other users would use the pad,” wrote NASA selection official Richard J. Keegan, Jr. “In contrast, SpaceX’s approach for exclusive use and its proposed manifest was specific, firm and included customers on contract.
“I determined the certainty and number of launches associated with SpaceX’s proposal outweighed the potential benefits associated with Blue Origin’s multi-use approach. I had a high level of confidence that SpaceX was very likely to successfully achieve its near term manifest,” he added.
Blue Origin’s proposal included future launches of its own rocket, which is still under development. However, Blue Origin had no firm commitments from any other launch providers to use the pad. The plan also posited that SpaceX would commit to use the pad for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, something the company has not agreed to do.
“Given the multi-factor rationale provided by SpaceX as to why an exclusive pad use arrangement was necessary to support its concept of operations, I found there is a significant possibility SpaceX would choose not to use LC-39A as a part of a multi-user arrangement,” Keegan wrote.
A Proposal Evaluation Panel (PEP) evaluated Blue Origin and SpaceX proposals on Financial Capability and Technical Approach. Each criteria included two grades, a color coded ranking for Effectiveness and a second one indicating the level of confidence that each company could execute on its plan.
Effectiveness Evaluation Rankings
SpaceX’s proposal scored significantly higher than Blue Origin’s plan. SpaceX received the two highest marks — Blue and Green, respectively — on financial and technical criteria. It received Medium scores in both areas for Confidence, indicating NASA’s belief the company is likely to perform what it proposed to do.
Blue Origin scored lower, receiving a White score on Financial and Technical merits, indicating only a moderate level of effectiveness in these areas. The low Financial rating was due in large part to the lack of committed users. The company received medium scores relating to NASA’s confidence level.
Consolidated Evaluations Table
“The PEP explained it had a high medium level of confidence with SpaceX’s technical approach while it had a low medium level of confidence with Blue Origin’s technical approach,” Keegan wrote. “The PEP did not identify any weaknesses for SpaceX regarding its proposed manifest unlike the weaknesses the PEP identified for Blue Origin’s technical approach. The PEP also did not provide different levels of confidence for near term manifests and long term manifests.”
The PEP found that Blue Origin had failed to specify the pad architecture and technical requirements for other users, which added to the risk of schedule delays. The company’s own booster is also still under development and is also subject to delays, Keegan noted.
By contrast, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is already flying, while its larger Falcon Heavy booster is scheduled for a test flight sometime next year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Launch Pad 39 A could be configured to host launches of both vehicles.
SpaceX is one of three companies competing in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. The launch pad is already set up to support human launches from its time as a space shuttle launch site.