NASA Struggles to Make the Kennedy Space Center a Multi-Use Launch Facility

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A story in Florida Today suggests that NASA is facing a number of problems recreating the Kennedy Space Center into what is called a "21st Century Space Launch Complex" that will support both government and commercial operations.

Most upgrade money going to support Space Launch System

Florida Today is suggesting that most of the money being used to upgrade the Kennedy Space Center is being used to accommodate the Space Launch System, the heavy lift launch vehicle designed to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, and not to accommodate potential commercial customers. Roughly three-quarters of the money is being spent exclusively for SLS upgrades, with commercial enhancements getting the rest.

Multi-use facilities

One approach NASA is using is to make many of the KSC facilities "multi-use," according to the Florida Today article. One example is that the Vehicle Assembly Building, once used to stack the Saturn Vs and then the space shuttles, is being refurbished to not only handle Space Launch System operations but also commercial space craft such as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. While launch pad 39B is being designated for SLS flights, NASA would like to lease pad 39A to commercial customers. The space shuttle landing runway could be used for a variety of horizontal takeoff and landing vehicles, such as the XCOR Lynx.

Funding, compatibility and control issues

Thus far, commercial space firms such as SpaceX have been skittish about sharing Kennedy Space Center facilities with NASA, according to Florida Today. There is not enough money to upgrade KSC facilities to accommodate all potential commercial customers. Even if there were it would be impossible to accommodate everyone, due to different methods of processing and launching. Finally, some commercial firms are wary at having their operations delayed or inhibited because of NASA's need to operate the Space Launch System.

Solution: commercial operations outside of KSC

One possible solution to the problems of accommodating commercial and NASA operations at the Kennedy Space Center would be to perform commercial launches elsewhere. SpaceX is mulling building its own spaceport near Brownsville, Texas. Space Port America in New Mexico is set to accommodate Virgin Galactic's plans to take paying customers on sub-orbital jaunts. The New Mexico State Legislature recently passed an insurance bill that helped to keep Virgin Galactic as an anchor tenant at the spaceport. Commercial space companies would have more control over their operations if they were located at their own facilities.

Solution: Cancel the Space Launch System

One other solution suggested by the Florida Today article and advocated in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal is to simply cancel the Space Launch System and either forego NASA's plans to explore deep space or to downsize them to accommodate the limited capabilities of commercial launchers. This would mean that Kennedy Space Center would become a purely commercial launch facility, with NASA being entirely out of the launch business.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

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