Rocket launch at Kennedy Space Center

Commercial space launches at Cape Canaveral

It’s been five years since the last Space Shuttle thundered off the pad at Kennedy Space Center and Nasa is turning some of its facilities over to commercial entities. We look at the transition from government launch base to commercial spaceport.

The remote, low-lying swamplands of Florida’s eastern seaboard made Cape Canaveral an ideal site for rocket tests in the 1950s. V-2s liberated from Germany after the war and later, Redstone, Thor and Titan ballistic missiles could be launched out over the Atlantic in relative secrecy and without endangering local populations. When it came to launching spacecraft into near-equatorial orbits, Florida’s proximity to the equator gave rockets a bigger boost from the Earth’s rotation and maximised the payload capability of any given rocket.

In 1962, when the John F Kennedy Space Center (KSC) opened, adding civilian space launches to the military-dominated ‘Cape', it was boom-time for Brevard County and surrounding communities. Mosquito-infested backwaters were transformed into Space Age facilities to support the forthcoming Moon landings and the ‘Space Coast’ became a holiday location with sun, sea and the occasional rocket launch thrown in.

Yet all booms seem to come with a bust and KSC’s came with the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in July 2011. In fact, even before their final missions closed a 30-year programme and the three Orbiters were towed off to museums, the local communities had begun a steady decline as workers lost their jobs and left the area.

Now, five years later, the Cape is experiencing a resurgence of activity – one could almost call it a renaissance – because of a commercial transition that’s occurring at KSC thanks to companies conveniently grouped under the banner of ‘NewSpace’.

KSC reinvention

Nasa is well known for its Apollo Moon missions, the Hubble Space Telescope, science missions to the planets and its lead on the International Space Station (ISS), but in recent years the conservative and government-oriented ‘Nasa culture’ has been forced to undergo a change. This was partly due to lack of political support and funding, but also because a number of NewSpace entrepreneurs had decided that the ‘Nasa way’ was simply too slow and too risk-averse.

One example is Elon Musk and his SpaceX company, which produces the Falcon rocket to launch commercial satellites to geostationary orbit and, under contract to Nasa, cargo vehicles to the ISS. SpaceX already has facilities at both KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (operated by the USAF) and is in the process of converting a former Shuttle launch pad to use in the near future.

According to Scott Colloredo, director of KSC Center Planning and Development (CPD), Nasa has taken a proactive role. “The end of the Space Shuttle programme and the rise of a commercial space industry created a unique opportunity for Kennedy to reinvent itself,” he says, and the CPD was formed “to enable commercial space”.

Indeed, Nasa is encouraging the commercialisation of space by letting contracts for ISS resupply to SpaceX and Orbital ATK, using their Dragon and Cygnus capsules respectively and by ‘repurposing’ existing facilities. Arguably, the most obvious facilities at a launch site are the launch pads themselves and none are better known – and more televised – than the Shuttle (and previously Apollo) launch complexes LC39A and 39B.

SpaceX has an agreement with Nasa to convert LC39A for its Falcon Heavy, the inaugural launch of which is expected in late 2016 (or knowing how things slip, early 2017). The vehicle – effectively three Falcon 9s strapped together – is designed to launch about 55 tonnes of payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) or some eight tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit. However, considering Musk’s well-publicised plan to make mankind a “multi-planet species”, it is clearly sized with Mars missions in mind.

Meanwhile, LC39B has been stripped back to a configuration not seen since the Apollo days, when the massive crawler-transporter vehicle moved the Saturn V, complete with launch platform and service tower, from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to the launch pad for every launch. Gone now are the fixed tower and rotating service structure used for the Space Shuttle, as LC39B is returned to what Nasa calls a ‘clean pad’ configuration, with only a flame trench, sound suppression system and lightning towers to indicate its role. The new design means that while Nasa will use the pad for its Space Launch System (SLS) – to send Orion crew capsules and other modules to asteroids, the Moon and eventually to Mars – other government and commercial launch vehicles will be able to use it too. It’s essentially a ‘plug and play’ launch pad for any application.

Yet there’s much more to a launch site than a concrete pad. Towering 160m above the Florida swamps, the VAB itself is a fairly obvious candidate for Nasa’s repurposing programme. Initially designed in the 1960s to house up to four Saturn V rockets for Apollo, it was converted for Space Shuttle integration in the late 1970s and remained that way for some three and a half decades. While currently being rejigged to house Nasa’s SLS, a recent agreement with Orbital ATK may see the company leasing the VAB’s High Bay 2 and a mobile launch platform for its proposed new (and so far nameless) launch vehicle. Colloredo points out that the vehicle would be “the first to operate from LC39B alongside Nasa’s Space Launch System”, thus inaugurating the Agency’s new ‘pad-sharing’ culture. According to David Thompson, president and CEO of Orbital ATK, the decision on whether or not to develop the new vehicle will be made in early 2017.

However, one building that lies in the shadow of the VAB – a former ‘Shuttle hangar’ known as an Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) – has already been taken over by Boeing for its commercial ISS crew capsule, the CST-100 or ‘Starliner’. A colourful mural depicting the Starliner in space makes a highly visible ‘Not Nasa’ statement across the front of the otherwise drab and perfunctory building. Likewise, SpaceX’s newly-built rocket integration building next to LC39A proudly displays an oversize company logo. Within a couple of years, these facilities will see their respective capsules heading to the ISS under Nasa’s commercial crew programme, carrying crews that are currently delivered by the Russian Soyuz.

Colloredo summarises the situation well: “To think that private companies would be operating at launch pads 39A and 39B, the Vehicle Assembly Building, all three Orbiter Processing Facilities, and the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout facility [where Lockheed Martin is integrating Orion]...would have been unheard of until recently.”

Space Florida

Clearly, the relationship between Nasa and its contractors is changing as the agency transitions from buying spacecraft, such as the Shuttle, to buying services, such as crew and cargo delivery. Yet there is an additional catalyst in Florida in the guise of the state’s aerospace economic development agency, Space Florida, which, according to its president and CEO Frank DiBello, acts “much like an airport or seaport authority”.

Space Florida provides critical infrastructure support, explains DiBello, while also facilitating “the growth of an entirely new entrepreneurial marketplace”. He cites the conversion of the former OPF-3, which KSC “made available to Space Florida to commercialise for Boeing’s Starliner”.

Other initiatives have included a 30-year property agreement between Nasa and Space Florida for the operation and management of the Shuttle Landing Facility – which currently handles anything from astronauts’ T-38 jets to wide-body Antonovs carrying satellites to KSC – and a hangar housing Starfighters Aerospace, a microgravity science company. In future, the runway could also be used as a return site for Sierra Nevada Corp’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, which Nasa announced in January 2016 as a third option (with SpaceX and Orbital ATK) for launching cargo to the ISS.

Yet it is arguably the deal to establish OneWeb’s satellite manufacturing plant on a business park just outside KSC’s main gate of which DiBello is most proud. While acknowledging the inevitable ‘team approach’, he says that “Space Florida was essential in the establishment of OneWeb here in Exploration Park” next door to Space Florida’s own HQ. Under a business model that is becoming the new standard, he explains that Space Florida will own the facilities and most of the equipment and lease them back to the manufacturing team. As announced in April, OneWeb Satellites will build 890 small satellites to provide internet services to regions that currently lack broadband access. Once up and running in 2017, the plant is expected to churn out one 150kg spacecraft every eight hours – or up to 15 a week at peak production – in a process not yet seen in the space industry. Unfortunately for the Florida launch site, however, most are expected to be launched on Soyuz rockets operated by Arianespace – but at least Space Florida’s airstrip will come in handy.


OneWeb is effectively an ‘anchor customer’ for Exploration Park, but as Dibello confirms, will be joined by Jeff Bezos’ secretive launch vehicle developer Blue Origin, which is “making a $200m capital investment in both LC36 for its launch site, and in a manufacturing facility in Exploration Park”. Bezos himself pointed out, when the plan was announced in 2015, that “the pad has stood silent for more than 10 years – too long”, adding “we can’t wait to fix that”. Surely, this is what the space industry has lacked for so long: a company that manufactures and launches its vehicles at facilities within sight of each other.

DiBello also hopes to host Google Lunar XPrize hopeful Moon Express, which is planning to convert Cape Canaveral’s former Delta pads, LC17 and 18, to launch its own commercial rocket to the Moon. He is tight-lipped about the details, but it’s clear that ‘The Cape’ is in transition to what Nasa and Space Florida officials call “a multi-user spaceport”.

In the past few years, it has been almost de rigeur for US states to propose legislation to allow the development of a spaceport within their boundaries; the term ‘spaceport’ has even entered the UK government lexicon as it considers licensing a facility in Britain. As yet however, the term has no agreed definition. The best analogy is with an airport from which multiple domestic carriers operate, but a spaceport analogous with an international airport is some way in the future, as is one that services anything other than vertically-launched rockets.

Asked whether KSC was officially considered to be a spaceport, DiBello revealed that “the Cape Canaveral Spaceport (CCS), which includes both Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre and the Air Force’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, is a recognised entity for which Space Florida is responsible as outlined in Florida Statute 331, Chapter II”. Moreover, he adds enthusiastically, “it is our view that CCS is the most successful spaceport in the world” and is “evolving into a truly commercially-?friendly 21st-?century spaceport”.

Colloredo, likewise, is optimistic about future developments. “Nasa expects the current trends to continue, but to become even more challenging and more rewarding,” he says. “As the vast number of launch systems – the SLS, SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, potential SLF users, potential small-class launch vehicles, and others – all get closer to launch, KSC will evolve from ‘under construction’ to ‘one launch after another’.”

That final phrase evokes the original intention of Space Shuttle managers to launch a mission every week (though for various reasons the fleet averaged 4.5 per year). The launch rate across the multiple users of the new spaceport remains to be seen, but it is clear, five years after the final Shuttle launch, that Nasa and its partners are reinventing Kennedy Space Center in response to the ‘NewSpace renaissance’. Once known exclusively as a launch base for military rockets and Nasa missions, the Cape has heard the call of commerce and is opening up the store.

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