Launch company protests possible NASA deal
- No lease agreement announced%2C yet NASA was known to be considering deal with SpaceX
- Blue Origin proposes using pad 39A to support launches by multiple rocket companies
- Five senators also urge NASA not to consider exclusive lease agreement
MELBOURNE, Fla. -- A dispute over control of a mothballed Kennedy Space Center launch pad is now in lawyers' hands while political pressure on the process grows.
NASA has not announced a lease agreement but was known to be considering an exclusive deal with SpaceX.
Also last week, five U.S. senators wrote to NASA urging Administrator Charlie Bolden not to pursue such an exclusive arrangement for even the minimum five-year duration.
"An exclusive lease would provide a major advantage to one company in bidding for international launches," reads the letter whose signers include Patty Murray of Washington, where Blue Origin is headquartered.
Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., had proposed to take over and modify pad 39A to support launches by multiple rocket companies, though its own orbital launch vehicle won't be ready until 2018.
The protest could impact which company ultimately uses the pad, but at a minimum will delay any lease award until the GAO reaches a decision, expected by mid-December.
NASA had hoped to transfer the historic former Apollo and shuttle pad by Oct. 1, the start of a new fiscal year that does not anticipate funding to maintain the facility, estimated at $1.2 million in 2013.
Blue Origin, started by Amazon.com CEO and billionaire Jeff Bezos, would not comment directly on the protest but reiterated its preference for a shared-use arrangement.
"Several major American space launch companies have come forward with interest in operating commercially from (launch complex) 39A and support this multi-user approach," Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said in a statement. "This is an important issue of national policy and we look forward to working with NASA to expand the use of LC 39A and its return to flight."
NASA must respond to the GAO within 30 days of the protest filed Tuesday.
Agency spokesman David Weaver said NASA was following an "open and fair" selection process that would ensure best value for taxpayers.
"The agency looks forward to reviewing and evaluating the proposals received and making a selection that will keep this storied launch pad in use for years to come," he said.
SpaceX declined to comment. The Hawthorne, Calif., company has said it needs exclusive control of the pad to support frequent launches it anticipates starting in 2015, and eventually crewed flights.
In July, two congressmen from Alabama and Virginia were the first to register concern about an exclusive lease. In addition to Washington, the new Senate criticism comes from states including Louisiana and Utah.
All are home to SpaceX competitors or NASA centers and contractors with stakes in the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket NASA is developing for human exploration missions.
The lawmakers suggest an exclusive lease would leave the exploration rocket without a backup pad, though NASA currently plans to abandon the complex if no partner is found.
Left abandoned, NASA says the seaside pad would be threatened with rapid deterioration.
In public comments and correspondence with Congress, NASA has said it envisions multiple users at the neighboring pad 39B, which is being readied for infrequent launches of the exploration rocket and capsule.
An agency background paper says pad 39A will require significant cost and expertise to modify its current shuttle-specific design.
"NASA believes that the argument for or against one operating concept over another is secondary to the demonstrated capability of any proposer to undertake the financial and technical challenges of assuming an asset of this magnitude," the paper says.