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Blue Origin & SpaceX bidding for NASA's space shuttle launchpad

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Homeland Security Fail

Thanks to Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos' backing, Blue Origin is one of the country's most financially stable rocket ventures, but it has also had one of the lowest profiles—until now.

Now the company, based in an industrial area south of Seattle, is waiting to hear whether it can take over one of NASA's crown jewels: Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the first and the last space shuttle flight blasted off. And Bezos is competing with another billionaire, SpaceX's Elon Musk, to get it.

SpaceX is one of the biggest success stories in space nowadays: The company that Musk founded in 2002 with his dot-com fortune has flown three successful unmanned missions to the International Space Station, has dozens of launches on its manifest, and is said to be turning a profit.

Meanwhile, Bezos' Blue Origin has been quietly working for almost 13 years on a suborbital launch system that would send passengers and payloads on short blasts into space as well as an orbital system that could deliver astronauts to the International Space Station or other destinations.

With financial backing from NASA, Blue Origin has developed an innovative launch pad escape system as well as a rocket that has gone as high as 45,000 feet (13.7 kilometers). But it hasn't yet put anything in outer space, and the crash of its prototype suborbital spacecraft in 2011 was a significant setback.

"We're a company that doesn't take the easy path," Blue Origin's president, Rob Meyerson, told NBC News during an interview at the company's headquarters in Kent. "These vehicles are challenging."


With the shuttle fleet retired, 39A is now considered surplus. NASA plans to use the other shuttle launch pad, 39B, for development and launch of its next-generation heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. But to save money, the space agency wants to turn the operation and maintenance of 39A over to a commercial concern in October.

Both Musk and Bezos are eyeing the launch pad because, for all their billions, it's still challenging to build an orbital launch pad from scratch. Kennedy Space Center would be ideal, because it already has the infrastructure as well as the coastal range clearances for orbital launches.

As an illustration of how tough it is to create a new pad, SpaceX has been looking into creating a new commercial launch facility for more than two years, but a deal still hasn't been reached.

SpaceX spokeswoman Christina Ra told NBC News that 39A wouldn't take the place of a future commercial launch facility. "SpaceX would focus on our commercial satellite customers with 39A but could launch any mission from our East Coast manifest. We could also use it for launching crew and Falcon Heavy," Ra said in an email.

SpaceX currently launches its Falcon 9 rocket and unmanned Dragon capsule on cargo flights to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which is near NASA's space center. The company plans to upgrade the Dragon for crewed missions by as early as 2015, and it wants 39A for those additional flights.

Blue Origin also is looking for an orbital launch facility. The company currently assembles hardware at the Kent facility and tests its suborbital rockets at a 18,600-acre spaceport that Bezos built amid hundreds of thousands of acres of rangeland he owns in West Texas.

Meyerson said the Texas spaceport would continue to be the base for suborbital operations, but Launch Complex 39A would be used for assembly and launch of orbital spacecraft. Commercial operations, perhaps including flights to the space station, would begin in 2018, he said. Meyerson said it was too early to estimate how many jobs would be created for the Florida operation. Blue Origin currently employs more than 250 people, while SpaceX has more than 3,000 employees.

Meyerson said it was too early to estimate how many jobs would be created for the Florida operation. Blue Origin currently employs more than 250 people, while SpaceX has more than 1,800 employees.

Blue Origin would run 39A as a multi-use facility, allowing other launch providers to send their rockets into space from the pad for a price. "We're open to everyone," Meyerson said. "We think we have the technical background and we have the long-term financial commitment to make a multi-user pad at KSC successful."


It's not clear how much money would change hands under either of the proposed arrangements, if any. NASA is already committed to paying SpaceX $1.6 billion for 12 cargo flights to the space station, plus $440 million for the current phase of development for a crew-capable Dragon spacecraft.

If SpaceX's bid is accepted, the company would presumably pay out a portion of that money for operation and maintenance of pad facilities.

In this clash of the billionaires, Blue Origin has at least one clear advantage: Bezos' net worth is estimated at $25.2 billion, almost 10 times Musk's estimated net worth of $2.7 billion.


Kinda sad that such a historic site is up for grabs. But at the very least, maybe it will push for more space exploration.
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