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NASA selects SpaceX to take over spare launch pad

In good news for SpaceX, bad news for Blue Origin, NASA announced that it has selected SpaceX to begin negotiations for its spare launch pad.

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in December, carrying a communications satellite. NASA announced today that it has selected SpaceX to enter negotiations for a lease to use its spare launch pad at Kennedy Space Center.

John Raoux/AP

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NASA said on Friday that it has selected private spaceflight company SpaceX to begin negotiations for assuming control of NASA’s spare launch pad at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The announcement ends a months-long competition between SpaceX and spaceflight company Blue Origin for the rights to launch pad 39A, a coveted spot that had emerged as a symbol of bitter competition in the burgeoning private spaceflight sector.

The news comes one day after the Government Accountability Office rejected Blue Origin’s protest that NASA had mismanaged the application process for the lease to launch pad 39A, which has been unused since the 2011 dismantling of NASA’s space shuttle program, but has yet cost the space agency some $100,000 per month in maintenance costs.The GAO’s decision had freed NASA to choose a leaser for the pad.

“While the GAO protest was underway, NASA was prohibited from selecting a commercial partner,” the agency said, in a statement. “However, while the GAO considered the protest, NASA continued evaluating the proposals in order to be prepared to make a selection when permitted to do so.”

“After the GAO rendered its decision Thursday in NASA’s favor, the agency completed its evaluation and selection process,” it said. “NASA will begin working with SpaceX to negotiate the terms of its lease for LC-39A.”

NASA had solicited proposals to take over launch pad 39A from the private spaceflight sector back in May. Since then, SpaceX and Blue Origin, the two billionaire-backed companies that submitted applications, have engaged in an at times acrimonious contest for the pad, which each venture has pegged as a plumb spot from which to launch spacefaring ambitions.

SpaceX is now poised to use the pad as the launch site for its line of Falcon rockets. The rockets underpin the company’s hopes of finding a niche in the booming private satellite launch business, as well as winning a NASA contract to become the space agency’s vehicle supplier for missions between the International Space Station and Earth.

Blue Origin had indicated that it would share the launch pad with the United Launch Alliance, the Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture that dominates the US market for private satellite launches. ULA is SpaceX’s main obstacle to entering the satellite launch market in the United States. Blue Origin is also developing its own line of suborbital and orbital capsules that it has suggested could compete against SpaceX's Dragon capsule. 

SpaceX has in recent months been making rapid advances in its bid to enter both the astronaut-ferrying and satellite launch business. Earlier this December, the company launched into space a satellite from Luxembourg-based company SES, using an upgraded version of its Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX had beat out two major launch companies for the job, underpricing the competitors with a launch price of $55 million.

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SpaceX has also signed several other launch contracts, including one to launch three Canadian satellites in 2018 and another to launch a German satellite system in 2018 and 2019.

The company’s Dragon capsule, its vehicle submission to NASA to replace the scuttled space shuttle program, made its most recent trip to the ISS in March. It is so far the only active spacecraft capable of transporting large amounts of supplies to and from the station.

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