Space Shuttle Endeavour on LC-39A in Febuary 2010. Via NASA/Bill Ingalls
Another milestone in the private space race was reached today: NASA announced that it will open negotiations with Elon Musk's SpaceX to lease a historic launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center.
Six months ago, Launch Complex 39, Pad A (LC-39A), from which such monumentous missions as Apollo 11 launched, was first announced to be up for lease by NASA. As you might expect, maintaining all the facilities for full scale rocket launches isn't cheap, and NASA decided to lease the facility in order to keep it up and running into the future.
According to the administration's description of the site, it's "a potentially useful, historically significant, launch platform for a commercial company or consortium, or other U.S. domestic entity, including state agencies, to use to support commercial launch activities while assuming financial and technical responsibility for [operation and management]."
That was apparently enough to sell SpaceX on the facility, and the private venture will now begin negotiating the terms of the lease with NASA. NASA will continue to use a companion pad, LC-39B, for its huge new Space Launch Sytem and Orion spacecraft. The administration's announcement today explains that it's getting a good deal in splitting the facility:
The reuse of LC-39A is part of NASA’s work to transform the Kennedy Space Center into a 21st century launch complex capable of supporting both government and commercial users. Kennedy is having success attracting significant private sector interest in its unique facilities. The center is hard at work assembling NASA’s Orion spacecraft and preparing its infrastructure for the Space Launch System rocket, which will launch from LC-39B and take American astronauts into deep space, including to an asteroid and Mars.
For SpaceX, it means top-flight launch facilties are within its grasp—and there's certainly some good publicity to be had, too. It's also another sign that Musk's venture has taken a bit of a lead in the private space race, especially after the firm's Dragon 9 rocket successfully, and for the first time, lifted a large satellite into geostationary orbit two weeks ago.
But the deal wasn't without controversy: Blue Origin, the private space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, was also in the running for the LC-39A lease, and had previously filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, which handles federal contract disputes, alleging that NASA gave SpaceX preferential treatment in the assessment process. Yesterday, the GAO rejected Blue Origin's bid, which left Bezos's company with no other recourse. It's not yet clear how long the negotiation process will take, but barring something unusual, SpaceX and NASA will one day be launching rockets side by side.