NASA's shuttle-era Launch Complex 39A has been put up for lease

Nasa puts shuttle launch pad up for lease

Nasa has put a "For Lease" notice on one of its launch pads in Florida, nearly two years after the final space shuttle launch.

In a notice posted on its procurement website yesterday, the US space agency said it was looking for one or more companies to take over operations and maintenance of Launch Complex 39A.

The facility is one of two launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center built in the 1960s to support the Apollo Moon program. Both were later modified for the space shuttles, which began flying in 1981.

Nasa intends to refurbish Complex 39B for its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion deep-space capsule, designed to carry astronauts to destinations beyond the International Space Station, but pad 39A is among the hundreds of shuttle-era facilities that Nasa no longer needs.

"We're on track for significant commercial operations here at the Cape," Kennedy Space Center director Robert Cabana said last week at a National Space Club Florida meeting in Cape Canaveral.

Nasa's Florida spaceport has demolished or transferred to commercial users more than 150 shuttle facilities, reducing its footprint by 1 million square feet (93,000 square meters), Cabana said.

Among the companies that have expressed interest in the pad are privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which leases a launch pad at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for its Falcon 9 rockets.

SpaceX has a second launch site in California and is shopping for at least one more US site to accommodate its burgeoning manifest. Nasa is looking to have a five-year or longer lease on the property by 1 October.

The upsurge in commercial interest in space exploration was underlined yesterday with the publication of study by space technology company Bigelow Aerospace, commissioned by Nasa, that claimed corporate researchers may be living on the moon by the time NASA astronauts head off to visit an asteroid in the 2020s.

The study shows "a lot of excitement and interest from various companies" for such ventures, said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of the Las Vegas-based firm.

The projects range from pharmaceutical research aboard Earth-orbiting habitats, to missions to the Moon's surface, he said, citing a draft of the report due to be released in a few weeks.

Nasa intends to follow the International Space Station program with astronaut visits to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars about a decade later.

President Barack Obama's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning 1 October requests $105m for the US space agency to begin work on a mission to find a small asteroid and reposition it around the moon for a future visit by astronauts.

But private companies, including Bigelow Aerospace, have more interest in the moon itself, Bigelow told reporters on a conference call on Thursday.

William Gerstenmaier, Nasa's head of space operations, said on the call "it's important for us to know that there's some interest in moon activity and lunar surface activity."

"We can take advantage of what the private sector is doing" in areas such as space transportation, life support systems and other technologies needed for travel beyond the space station's 250 mile high orbit, he noted.

Nasa typically completes its mission planning before looking at what partnerships and collaborations may be possible, Gerstenmaier added.

"We thought that this time we would kind of turn that around a little bit, that we would ask industry first what they're interested in ... where they see human presence that makes sense, where they see potential commercial markets."

Bigelow Aerospace surveyed about 20 companies as well as foreign space agencies and research organisations for the Nasa study, which the company undertook at its own expense.

Bigelow has made no secret of its ambition to own, lease and operate inflatable space habitats in Earth orbit and on the Moon.

Bigelow handed a draft of the first part of the report to Gerstenmaier on Thursday, 40 days ahead of schedule. The second section, which probes mission planning and other aspects of potential public-private partnerships, is due this autumn.

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