SpaceX has signed a 20-year lease with NASA to operate a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On Monday, the space agency announced that it had reached an agreement that would see SpaceX take over maintenance and operation of Launch Complex 39A, a site that saw the first and last Space Shuttle launch and 11 Apollo missions, including the Apollo 11 flight that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon. NASA, which has increasingly outsourced routine missions to the private sector, will no longer foot the bill for upkeep. "SpaceX will maximize the use of pad 39A both to the benefit of the commercial launch industry as well as the American taxpayer," SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell says.
A Falcon Heavy launch is planned for early 2015
Pad 39A has not been operational since the conclusion of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. It was opened for tours in mid-2012, and in 2013, NASA began soliciting bids for a private lease, saying the pad was no longer needed for its own programs. NASA will use Launch Complex 39B as it develops its own Space Launch System, the heavy rocket meant to take astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid and, eventually, Mars in the 2030s. An uncrewed SLS test mission is on course for 2017. SpaceX will be modifying pad 39A with the goal of launching its first Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy early next year, though Shotwell says that it will preserve the pad's "historic elements," according to Space.com.
Pad 39A has been the subject of a custody battle between SpaceX and competitor Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin urged NASA to let multiple companies use the pad, but its arguments failed to convince the Government Accountability Office, opening the door for NASA to offer SpaceX the pad in December. While both companies have partnered with NASA, SpaceX is the only one to have successfully completed a mission, and it already leases two other launch facilities, one at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and another at Cape Canaveral in Florida. In December of 2013, it launched its first commercial communications satellite, and its Falcon 9 rocket delivers supplies to the International Space Station.
SpaceX's success symbolizes the potential of NASA's private industry partnerships, as it increasingly puts its resources into pure research and experimental missions. It's currently working towards shuttling ISS crew members as well as cargo, reducing US dependence on Russia's Soyuz capsules — especially now that NASA's relationship with Russia has deteriorated sharply. While the agency's work with SpaceX has been praised, its publicly funded Space Launch System has been characterized in Congress as an expensive white elephant. Right now, though, the two programs will be operating on parallel paths.