Sen—After vying with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to take over an idled shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, fellow billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos’ decision to become a neighbor instead heralds a new chapter for Florida’s storied Space Coast.
Musk won the squabble over Launch Complex 39A, which is now nearing the end of a major refurbishment to support SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and planned Falcon Heavy family of rockets. The pad, originally built for NASA’s Apollo moon program in the 1960s, was revamped for the space shuttle program, which ended in 2011. NASA is modifying the shuttle’s second launch pad, 39B, for its heavy-lift Space Launch System booster, which is expected to debut in 2018.
Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, wanted pad 39A for his space startup, Blue Origin, which intends to build on its suborbital New Shepard launcher, now undergoing test flights in Texas, with an orbital launch system, informally known as “Very Big Brother.” Like SpaceX’s Falcon boosters, Bezos’ rocket is being designed to return to Earth after launch so it can be refurbished and reflown. (Bezos and Musk also sparred over a patent issued to Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, involving landing a booster on a barge in the ocean. Musk won that round too, but Blue Origin is expected to file a revised claim.)
Blue Origin cast a wide net for a suitable launch site for Very Big Brother, eventually narrowing the list of candidate locations to five sites, mostly along the Atlantic Coast. Bezos decided on Florida, though state economic development officials confessed that other states offered more lucrative tax abatements and financial lures.
Nostalgia played a role in Bezos’ decision.
“As a kid, I was inspired by the giant Saturn 5 missions that roared to life from these very shores … We’re thrilled to be coming to the Sunshine State for a new era of exploration,” Bezos said during the project’s September 15 unveiling.
Blue Origin is leasing a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of the NASA spaceport. Blue’s Launch Complex 36 may not be as storied as SpaceX’s Apollo- and shuttle-era pad, but it’s not lacking in history. During 43 years of operations, LC-36’s two pads were used for 145 missions, including NASA’s Surveyor lunar landers, the Mariner probes to Mars and the Pioneer spacecraft, which were the first to explore the outer planets in the Solar System.
The Atlas rockets that once flew from LC-36 shifted to Launch Complex 41, formerly used for the now-retired Titan rocket program, in 2002. The Air Force demolished Pad 36’s launch towers in 2006 and 2007, clearing the way for Space Florida, the state-backed space development agency, to lease the site in 2008 and begin preparing it for potential commercial customers. The last launch from LC-36 was more than decade ago.
“We can’t wait to fix that,” Bezos said.
History aside, a more important reason to locate in Florida was the availability of a skilled workforce. Blue Origin expects to hire more than 300 employees in Florida, tapping the expertise of teams that kept NASA’s space shuttles flying for 30 years.
But the company’s commitment to Florida goes beyond any previous rocket program: Blue Origin intends to not just fly rockets from the Cape, but build them there too, a first for the state.
Blue Origin will construct a rocket manufacturing plant in an industrial park located just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center.
"At Exploration Park we'll have a 21st-century production facility where we'll focus on manufacturing our reusable fleet of orbital launchers and readying them for flight again and again," Bezos said.
“Locating the vehicle assembly near our launch site makes it way easier to process and transport really big rockets,” he added. “It’s logical to build it where you’re going to fly it.”
Details of the facility are still being worked out, but Bezos said it would encompass several hundred thousand feet of floor space.
"We're talking about bringing raw aluminum and raw carbon fiber here, it'll be milled and formed and friction stir welded here and so on," Bezos said. "Not just final assembly and certainly not just vehicle stacking (for launch). We're talking about ... some pretty deep manufacturing,” he said.
Blue Origin isn’t yet releasing details about the rocket, including its lift capacity or when it might be ready to fly people. Bezos did say that its first flight is targeted before the end of the decade.
“You’ll hear us before you see us,” Bezos noted, adding that they will also build a rocket engine test stand at LC-36 for its BE-4 engines, currently under development. In addition to powering the first stage of Blue’s rocket, the liquefied natural gas motors are expected to fly aboard United Launch Alliance’s next-generation rocket, dubbed Vulcan. In that regard, ULA, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, will be both customer and competitor for Blue.
The arrangement is not all that unusual in the U.S. space industry. After Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket failed during a space station cargo run for NASA last year, the company, now renamed Orbital ATK following its acquisition of another rocket firm, turned to ULA to buy rides for two more Cygnus cargo ships on Atlas rockets.
Meeting with a small group of reporters after the rocket announcement, Bezos said he frequently runs into Musk and other billionaire entrepreneurs who are jump-starting a new era in commercial space.
“For sure this is an industry where people are competitive, but I think it’s also an industry where there’s also a lot of heart, and people doing this for reasons of passion,” Bezos said.
"The people who are attracted to this field are like me, it's in their heart, they are missionary, they want to build rockets, they want to see humanity fly into space.
“You can't do something like this without high engagement,” he added. “People need to be creative, they need to be inventive, they need to wake up thinking about it in the shower. All of the people we employ are like that."
“The vision for Blue is pretty simple: We want to see millions of people living and working in space,” Bezos said. “Do we want to go to Mars? Absolutely. But we want to go everywhere, and if you want to go everywhere, then you need to dramatically lower the cost of space. That’s what we're really focused on. The physics of this are unbelievably hard. Our number one opponent is gravity. We have to work very, very hard to get into low-Earth orbit safely and at low cost."
Which brings Bezos back to rocket reusability, an issue that unites him closely with Musk.
“You cannot afford to be a space-faring civilization if you throw the rocket away every time you use it," Bezos said.
Both Blue Origin and SpaceX have been experimenting with vertical landing systems. Blue attempted to return its New Shepard suborbital rocket to a landing pad in West Texas after a successful test flight in April, but the rocket lost pressure in its hydraulic system and crashed. Bezos said a second rocket is targeted to fly before the end of the year.
SpaceX, which has been flying its Falcon 9 orbital launchers since 2010, began testing vertical landing systems with its McGregor, Texas-based Grasshopper program three years ago. The test rig flew four times, giving the company confidence to move on to experiments with larger rockets, including those used for operational missions. Before attempting to touch down on land, SpaceX is practicing with landing on a platform in the ocean. Tests are expected to resume as early as this year, following a Falcon 9 launch accident in June.
Neither company is disclosing how much they are spending on their development efforts. SpaceX has strong backing from NASA and has been certified to fly U.S. military missions. Blue Origin is entirely privately funded. Bezos and Musk have both said they are not in the business for the money.
"I always tell people, if my only goal were to make money, I would just open a new kind of snack food company,” Bezos said. “That would be easier, but I don’t want to do that.”