Monday, September 30, 2013

Pad 39, Hot Air and "Unicorns Dancing in Flame Ducts!"

Jeff Bezos. Photo c/o Washington Post.

          by Brian Orlotti

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has accused Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance (ULA) of trying to stonewall SpaceX’s expansion plans by delaying the lease of an old NASA launchpad that SpaceX wants to acquire.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk grimly eyeballing potential unicorns. Photo c/o

SpaceX and Jeff Bezos backed Blue Origin are both seeking to lease Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida from NASA. Launch Complex 39A is famous for having been the launch point for the Saturn V moon rockets as well as the recently retired space shuttles.

In May, both SpaceX and Blue Origin responded to a NASA request for proposals to lease Launch Complex 39A, which the agency says it no longer needs. SpaceX proposed an exclusive five-year lease on the complex for launching its Falcon rockets. Blue Origin made NASA a counter-proposal for converting the pad into a commercial spaceport open to all launch companies. A war of words between the two firms then ensued, with Blue Origin accusing SpaceX of attempting to establish a monopoly on launch facilities.
The prize: A mothballed Pad 39A in May 2013. Photo c/o NASA.

On Sept 3rd, Blue Origin raised the stakes by filing a formal protest with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the grounds that NASA’s solicitation process was biased in favour of SpaceX. The GAO has until Dec. 12 to issue a ruling on Blue Origin’s protest. Under US federal law, gov’t agencies cannot award contracts when a solicitation is under protest---essentially barring NASA from leasing the pad to anyone until the dispute is resolved.

On Sept 24th, SpaceX flip-flopped, with a spokesperson said that the company would now be willing to let other firms launch from the pad as well if granted the lease. In an email response to a question from the website SpaceNews, Musk clarified the reasons for the flip-flop while making a nasty jab at Blue Origin:
From a SpaceX standpoint, we view [Blue Origin] and [United Launch Alliance’s] action as a phony blocking tactic and an obvious one at that. BO has not yet succeeded in creating a reliable suborbital spacecraft, despite spending over 10 years in development. It is therefore unlikely that they will succeed in developing an orbital vehicle that will meet NASA’s exacting standards in the next 5 years, which is the length of the lease. That said, I can’t say for sure whether [Blue Origin’s] action stems from malice. No such doubt exists about ULA’s motivation.

However, rather than fight this issue, there is an easy way to determine the truth, which is simply to call their bluff. If they do somehow show up in the next 5 years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what Pad 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs. Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.
Although Musk shrewdly countered Blue Origin’s threat by matching their offer of openness, the conflict shows no signs of abating. Rather, the struggle between SpaceX and Blue Origin has shifted from a war of maneuver into one of attrition, with each side deploying all the political and financial might at its disposal.
The legacy: The cover of the September 25th, 1964  issue of Life Magazine showing launch complex 39A, 39B, 39C and 39D. Photo c/o Retroweb  and the Heroic Relics website.
Blue Origin’s bid for 39A has received backing from several US politicians. ULA, the Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture that has launched almost all U.S. government payloads, has also allied with Blue Origin, telling SpaceNews in July that it planned to “continue to share our technical expertise in launch infrastructure with Blue Origin to enable their leadership to manage the asset for multi-user capability, for which ULA could be one of the users.” SpaceX’s currently in-development Falcon Heavy rocket has the potential to take lucrative Pentagon contracts away from ULA.

SpaceX’s bid for Pad 39A has a large power base in Florida. U.S. senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio as well as all 27 of the state’s House members wrote to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden after Blue Origin’s Sept. 3 GAO protest, encouraging the NASA chief to ignore outside pressure when selecting a new tenant for Pad 39A. This is in addition to Musk’s well-known good standing with US President Obama.

Whichever winner emerges from this struggle, it would be in the interests of all if the mantra of openness is practiced as well as preached. This industry’s future will depend on it.

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