SpaceX’s Launch Manifest Decisive in Leasing Agreement for NASA’s Pad 39A

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

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

Confidence Level Evaluation Rankings

PEP Evaluations

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’s levels of confidence on technical approaches varied slightly, with an edge for SpaceX.

“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.

  • mzungu

    Blue Origin’s continue secretive nature and lack of transparency on their future plans doesn’t help on the lobbying front either.

  • Stuart

    You have to ask, why is Blue Origin so secretive? Have their technology ideas/material been stolen by others historically?

  • therealdmt

    Well, having no need to raise outside funding (it appears that Bezos is exclusively bankrolling the operation), there’s little incentive to publicly say much about a development program that is sure to (like any development program) have its delays and rocky moments.

    However, some PR might have helped them when it came to dealing with NASA for Commercial Crew funding selection and again with the lease of Pad 39A. Or not. We’ll never know, and ideally such things would have been exclusively decided on merit anyway.

    They’ll eventually want to trumpet their accomplishments and features once they actually have a working (or at least “near working”, with “working” in sight) vehicle and a service to try to sell. I guess they saw the alternative (constant press releases, etc.) as distracting and too likely to replicate the Virgin Galactic rollercoaster.

  • windbourne

    actually, China is a VERY real threat. All of their tech comes from either Russia or the west.
    And SpaceX is just as secretive. The fact is, that you do not see all of the pix of their operations that you want. They have many things hidden from sight. So is ULA and all of the companies.

  • windbourne

    it does not impact them in the least with NASA. NASA knows what they are doing.

  • mfck

    …and it says “keep doing it, you are not there yet”.

  • windbourne

    I agree. I was surprised that Blue Orign actually challenged this. It seems like an incredible waste of time and money.
    In fact, it seems like BO, ULA, L-Mart, Boeing, etc spend more time attacking SpaceX with law suits and gov. regulations, then they do simply trying to build a better mouse trap.

    If those companies would spend their money on just competing and being better, we would have a decent space industry.
    Sadly, you can tell which companies are ran by Engineers (SpaceX), and those ran by MBAs (the rest).

  • Mercy2000

    Petition to rename Pad 39a ‘Armstrong’s Start’. Can you sign this
    petition for me and pass the word along to friends you might think are