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NASA begins selling shuttle launch platforms

By The Guardian
Wednesday, August 21, 2013 8:38 EDT
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Space Shuttle Columbia STS-1 launch, April 12, 1981. NASA photo
 
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Huge transporters mounted on crawler tracks also carried Apollo moon rockets from hangar to launchpad for liftoff

Nasa is selling three huge mobile platforms used to launch the Apollo moon missions and the space shuttle – adding to the list of historic facilities and equipments it wants private industry to take over, including a shuttle launchpad and its landing runway.

The massive steel structures – 7.6 metres high (25ft) 49 by 41 metres on top – were used to move spacecraft from rocket assembly hangars at the Kennedy Space Centre to the launchpad on crawler tracks. They were originally built in 1967 for the Apollo moon programme’s Saturn rockets, then modified for the space shuttles, which flew from 1981 until 2011.

The space agency has said it wants a private space company to take them over or might end up having to sell them for recycling.

The platforms provided power and umbilical connections to Apollo and the shuttles, and had open sections for flames and rocket exhaust to pass through. “At this point Nasa is looking to gauge interest for potential use of the [platforms] and concepts for potential use,” spokeswoman Tracy Young said. Proposals are due by 6 September. Nasa is already assessing bids for a shuttle launchpad from two competing firms backed by Internet billionaires. It is turning over the shuttle’s runway to Space Florida, a state-backed economic development agency that plans to make it available to commercial companies including XCOR Aerospace, which is developing a two-person suborbital spaceship called Lynx that takes off and lands like an aeroplane. Another potential customer is Stratolaunch Systems, an orbital space vehicle backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The Kennedy Space Centre launchpad has attracted competing bids from the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, co-founder of Paypal and chief executive of electric car company Tesla Motors. Bezos and Musk, both billionaires, are vying for Launch Complex 39A. Nasa intends to keep the second shuttle launchpad, 39B, for a new heavy-lift rocket under development called the Space Launch System. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, California, wants 39A to launch its Falcon 9 and planned Falcon Heavy rockets. The privately owned firm, also known as SpaceX, already flies from a leased launchpad at Cape Canaveral air force station, located just south of the Kennedy Space Centre. The first Falcon 9 rocket flight from a new launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is scheduled for September. SpaceX also is developing a version of its Dragon cargo ship to fly astronauts.

Startup Blue Origin, a Kent, Washington, firm owned by Bezos, submitted an alternative proposal to Nasa to run pad 39A as a multi-user facility. Both firms say they are ready to take over maintenance and operations of the launch pad on 1 October. United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, did not bid on the shuttle’s launchpad but has publicly endorsed Blue Origin’s proposals. The company, which has a lucrative monopoly on launching US military satellites, is facing its first competition for the business from SpaceX. The main Nasa facilities that will remain are the shuttle launchpad 39B, plus various hangars for the Orion deep space capsule to be launched by Nasa’s heavy lift rocket, due to begin test flights in 2017.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

 
 
 
 
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