Insider Q & A: From concept to reality – KSC as a Multi-User Spaceport
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Anyone who spends time in or around Florida’s Space Coast has heard one phrase repeatedly used in the past few years: Multi-User Spaceport. What does that mean? To find out, SFI spoke with two NASA representatives intimately aware of the agency’s efforts to expand the diverse array of organizations operating out of the center.
What does this mean for the space agency? How do private space companies stand to gain by becoming a member of this new effort? To find out, SpaceFlight Insider spoke to Kennedy Space Center’s Director of the Center Planning and Development Directorate, Tom Engler, and Philip Meade, the Chief of the Spaceport Management Integration Division.
SFI: In terms of the SLS, we saw the X-37B coming in, we’ve seen race cars out there, we’ve seen motorcycles, the Global Flyer, and now the Air Force is using the Shuttle Landing Facility. SpaceX is using 39A, which of course is where Apollo 11 launched from, and you’ve got the OPFs, which Boeing had basically taken over. So there’s a lot more participants, more people in the mix out at Kennedy now, but it’s still your property. So SpaceX has launched commercial missions off of 39A. How does that work in terms of your normal operations? I mean, are you working with SpaceX now, even though these missions really have nothing to do with NASA?
Meade: “So the real answer is that there’s a new normal. The normal has changed. And becoming a multi-user spaceport is not just something we woke up one day and said, ‘Look, we’re a spaceport.’ It was an intentional strategy that the center undertook to become a multi-user spaceport. Associated with that is developing all of the processes, all of the procedures, policies, all the different operational capabilities required to be a multi-user spaceport, because doing the type of work that we do out here—you know, it’s large.
“It has the ability to impact other users of the spaceport very easily, so there’s a strong need to have that core integration and management function of the spaceport. And so when you ask how does our new normal account for that, the new normal is really that we are the manager, operator, the integrator of the spaceport.
“So we have that as a new core role for us, so rather than just being purely programs that are NASA programs that operate out here—they manage and integrate within themselves—we now have to have, in addition to that, an overarching layer of spaceport management and integration, which is my organization, to make sure that you’re coordinating among all of the different users, and making sure that they get their services that they need.”
SFI: One of the hardest questions I’m going to have is “Why?” Why is NASA doing this, because again, this really has nothing to do with NASA. So what is the benefit for the agency, and I guess in the larger scheme, the American taxpayer?
Meade: “I think the real benefit—and Tom is a great salesman of this as well, so you can probably get his take on this, too—but it really is about the American public, it is about the American taxpayer. If you look at the space policy that’s been created, there’s a strong encouragement for us to help and encourage and grow the ability for America to compete and to excel within the global space market. And so we’ve been encouraged by the federal government to make the maximum use or maximum availability of our assets for supporting commercial space.”
SFI: Would you say that the concept there is that if you have a single product and no one needs that product anymore, you’re in more jeopardy, but whereas if a facility like Kennedy has a diverse array of individuals both collaborating and working there, it’s more stable and productive and more likely to survive changes in the future?
Engler: “I think there’s a little bit of that in there, and I think that by utilizing some resources that we probably would demolish or let go, we do keep those around for potential future use by NASA if in the future we want to share those; or if a partner that’s using them goes away and we find they’re suddenly available and we have a programmatic need for them, so there is that piece of it. But we believe—and this is kind of a philosophical stance—we believe it’s in the nation’s best interests to have a healthy space capability, healthy access to space.
“That’s not just NASA, but the commercial capability, so our ability to put satellites up there—our ability to continue to push the technological boundaries to do innovation and develop new technologies and new capabilities to bring high-paying jobs into the economy through these different companies—I feel like that’s a very valuable thing for America, and so having a healthy space industry in the United States and being a true competitor and leader within the global space market, we believe is the best interests of the United States as a whole, and obviously the American taxpayer.”
SFI: Boeing, of course, is benefiting from this. Space Florida is another winner, if you want to say that, SpaceX, of course—they’re all benefiting from these really high-end facilities that you support for launch and other operations. How do you see the response to that, and is there an ROI (return on investment) on that?
Engler: “So I think from our perspective—and Phil hit the nail on the head—our leadership, from the President in 2010 on down to Center Director and Deputy Center Director at the time set the vision for us, to become that multi-user spaceport. And so, by doing so, we created an environment that allowed multiple companies to be successful here.
“You hit the nail on the head with a couple of them. What we’d kind of like to highlight with that is, as a center, we have four companies here, doing human spaceflight activities, separate and distinct. In the context of human spaceflight, there’s only been three countries that ever flew to space: the United States, China, and Russia. Now at Kennedy, we have four companies—SpaceX, Blue Origin, Lockheed-Martin with Orion, and Boeing with CST-100—performing human spaceflight operations and development and capability here at Kennedy Space Center.
“The creation of the environment we’ve developed here, we’ve made an environment that has allowed these companies to come in here and be successful, and that makes America a better spacefaring nation than it probably ever has been before.”
SFI: […] you’ve got United Launch Alliance…
Engler: “We do, and we supply services to them through the Spaceport Integration Services Division. The ability to support these launches and having the infrastructure here that really minimized their investment into the development of a spaceport is a win-win for everybody. So we have people that come in—companies that come in, use the capabilities, and pay for pieces of that capability as they’re using it, so it helps us from a cost perspective, and having that capability already there prevents them from having to develop a massive, expensive capability to do things like develop and deliver GN2 [gaseous nitrogen] as an example, or helium.
“Having the ability to supply that to all the launch pads is a tremendous enabler for these companies. And so ULA, SpaceX, SLS, and now Blue [Origin] are all going to take advantage of all the infrastructure we have here and the talents we’ve developed over the last 50-plus years as an entity that launches rockets to space, so [there are] so many benefits to both sides to having these companies here, so it’s really a win-win for everybody having them here.
“It’s been a great benefit to the center, and I’d like to think—and the feedback I’m getting—is that it’s been a benefit to these companies as well, so, all in all, it’s been a very positive relationship, and I think it will just continue to grow and get better as we go on.”
Meade: “If you look at the space industry, a basic analysis of the industry tells you that there’s a huge barrier to entry to launch, and it’s not just because of the technology involved in the rocket, it’s the infrastructure. We help to shorten both the time required for that buildup of the ground infrastructure as well as the costs associated with that for these companies, so they can get to market faster and become profitable faster and also not have to sink so much in upfront on developing a lot of this infrastructure.”
SFI: The last question we have for this portion of the interview is, can you tell us a little bit about the coordination involved when you’ve got DoD and these commercial companies all working out of KSC? What are the differences between the Shuttle era and the Apollo era before that and now, when we’ve got Falcon 9s and Falcon Heavies ready to lift off from 39A?
Meade: “[There are] two answers to this question. The world had changed—and I’ll probably talk about that second—but if you talk about the way things were done under Shuttle, and if you talk about using a traditional flight termination system with the Air Force Range, then things have not changed that significantly than how they were done with Shuttle.
“We have a very tight partnership with the 45th Space Wing, we coordinate with them a lot. We participate in their meetings, we’re part of their scheduling process, as they’re part of our scheduling process. All of the range infrastructure capabilities are constantly coordinated between the two groups, between Kennedy Space Center and the 45th Space Wing. All of that still happens the way it always has.
“The big differentiator, the big change that’s occurred is a lot of these commercial companies are going to automated flight termination systems. And when you go to an AFTS, now all of a sudden, a lot of the range infrastructure, a lot of the range coordination and scheduling that was required previously you no longer have.
“There’s still range assets that they use, there’s still a significant role, an important role that the Air Force plays in launches from Kennedy Space Center, but the huge bottleneck that used to be there—from only one user at a time could actually operate on the range, and you’d have to block off multiple days, and there was a two-day turnaround time between when one user of the range could use it and the next user could—we’re entering into a time period where you honestly could have two different companies launch a rocket on the same day from Kennedy Space Center.
“I honestly believe there’s nothing that’s stopping us from doing that today, assuming that other resources like the pipeline and other things like that are deconflicted. So one of the things that Tom’s working really hard on is a small-class launcher capability here at Kennedy Space Center […].”
Engler: “[…] 39C or 48/49, that’s part of our Notice of Availability—that we have two launch sites available if a private investor wanted to come in and build a small rocket launch pad, 48 and 49 are perfect locations for that. And that would allow a company to come in and do their own launches from there or allow it to become a multi-user small launcher pad. It creates diversity and allows companies to be a little more flexible from a launch perspective than they would be with just 39C. It opens up a lot of possibilities with the development of an additional small-launcher pad launch site.”
Meade: “There’s no reason a rocket couldn’t launch from 48 and on the same day, SpaceX could launch from A.”
SFI: You think we could see that—two launches on a single day?
Engler: “I agree with Phil. It’s just a matter of deconflicting time frames and ensuring that when one launch happens that there’s enough of a separation between launches that one launch doesn’t endanger people on the other launch pad during their prep work.”
SFI: Have you seen—have there been any bites toward your call for 48 or 49?
Engler: “We’ve had several expressions of interest, yeah.”
SFI: Thank you. Moving on to the OPFs. One of the OPFs is currently used for Starliner and the other two are used by Boeing for the X-37B. Can you provide our readers with some of the details about how diversification is helping NASA achieve its objectives?
Engler: “So if you look at it from the perspective of the fact that we have two companies here supporting commercial crew directly. So SpaceX and Boeing are developing capabilities to fly humans to space from the United States for the first time since the end of the Shuttle program. That directly supports NASA.
“Indirectly, you get the support of those companies to the overall evolution of commercial space in general, so if you ever hear Mr. Bigelow speak from Bigelow Aerospace, the thing that’s limiting him right now from launching his capabilities to orbit is reliable transportation for [a] crew at a commercial level to orbit.
“So the development of commercial crew and having that capability here will be that enabler for that next evolution of commercial space, which would be to potentially privately-held space stations and probably further development that I can’t even begin to imagine, or if I did, it would probably sound crazy if I tried to imagine it. Over time, there’s space mining, [there are] all these things that are floating out there that depend on reliably, easily getting people to space.”
SFI: I don’t think a lot of our readers are going to think you’re crazy, I think a lot of our readers are like, “Why aren’t we already doing this?”
Engler: “Well, it’s a great question, and we’re doing a lot of work to make that happen here at Kennedy. And, again, having created that environment here, having created the partnerships, having four separate companies doing human spaceflight here ought to excite your readers to the point where they—I mean it excites us to no end, the sea change that’s occurred here. We’ve all said that—it’s going to sound immodest—but we have become the epicenter of human spaceflight in the world here at Kennedy Space Center.
“By having these companies be here, creating that environment for them and allowing them to work and do the things they need to do here to develop those capabilities—it really speaks a lot to how far Kennedy has come since 2010 and the inception of the multi-user spaceport concept.”
Meade: “As early as the Vision for Space Exploration, when it came out, the plan from a NASA and U.S. Government perspective was [to] turn over low-Earth orbit to commercial industry so that NASA can then go and focus on putting footprints on other worlds.”
SFI: Moon, Mars, and Beyond.
Meade: “Exactly. So that’s a big part of what we’re leveraging and dependent on from the Boeings and the SpaceXes, is to be able to, through the commercial crew program, take our astronauts up to the International Space Station, be able to make access to low-Earth orbit a little more routine, and free us up to then focus on trips to Mars and developing the SLS and that architecture. It is definitely helping us achieve our goals.
SFI: NASA’s giving up all these assets, so they’re not theirs anymore. That’s technically correct, but what kind of access does NASA have to 39A, to the OPFs, now that they’re not technically their property anymore? What’s that like?
Meade: “So I’m going to correct you just a little bit…”.
SFI: Please do!
Meade: “Technically it is our property, so we haven’t given over any title to land or property at Kennedy Space Center. What we’ve done is Tom’s group has developed leases and these other mechanisms that we have at our disposal to basically rent out or lease property. Now it’s long-term leases in most cases because we need to help to be able to help these companies close a business case.
“It’s long-term leases, but it’s still NASA property. And so with that, we still retain ownership, long-term, and the secondarily it also means that we retain some of the responsibilities from a protection of life safety standpoint and from an overall spaceport management integration perspective. We do have the ability to enter these facilities. We would not do so just willy-nilly.
“You know, it’s like you’re a landlord, you don’t just walk into someone’s house […].”
SFI: You’d contact them first…
Meade: “We have good coordination with them, and we have individuals in my organization that are assigned to directly work with each partner that we have, and they have a good relationship. They help them get what they need, and they’re the ones that are the boots on the ground, typically, if we have to gain entry in or go in and do something. On Pad A, for example, we still have a lot of facilities and systems that are required by Pad B, and so there’s an awful lot of interchange between NASA and SpaceX in terms of going in and working on those systems, but we coordinate with them and schedule around them because we don’t want to interfere with their ops schedule and what they’re doing.
“If there were a fire, for example, our fire [department] would still have the ability to go into their facility and put out the fire. EMS, same thing: if there’s some sort of medical emergency, and so we do have that ability, and we still retain that. A bit part of our goal—and a lot of what Tom and I have been working on over the past few years—is trying to create this environment that Tom was talking about where it’s very much conducive to commercial entities wanting to come here and work and do business.
“Which means that we treat them with the appropriate amount of respect and respect their operations, respect their schedules, respect their business cases, and actually partner with them in achieving their goals rather than […] we’re not trying to be this government overlord that’s trying to mandate or have a heavy thumb on stuff.
“A lot of the processes that I talked about earlier—we radically changed the safety requirements and came up with three different categories of safety requirements depending on what type of facility you’re in to try and minimize the amount of oversight that we would have; minimize our need to intrude on their operation or be involved in it; and minimize their requirement to actually have to come to us and ask permission for much. We try to give them the maximum autonomy possible.”
SFI: I think that answers the first of my general questions, which was how have these agreements changed from when it was McDonnell-Douglas out here, Lockheed, Rockwell, and so on?
Engler: “At the time, those were more contracts than agreements, so the big change for us is having these companies on center as partners, us providing services to them, and sometimes them providing services to us. Having these companies out here has created an environment where we’re able to utilize our on-site contractors and civil service staff to help support them when they need it, and when they don’t, we’re off doing other things, so it’s a different environment from that standpoint because we’ve gone from a contracting relationship to a partnership relationship, which is where we are with these companies.”
Meade: “In some cases, it’s literally flipped. Whereas McDonnell-Douglas, for example, if you go back that far, they worked for us. So we were the customer and they worked for us. Now—not so much with the partnership agreements, per se, but through the services agreements—we work for the commercial entities. So we actually act as a subcontractor to them in many cases. SpaceX, for example, may choose to buy propellants from us for a launch. We become a service provider to them and we subcontract to them for those propellants for that launch.”
SFI: So I imagine that actually could be used to offset NASA’s expenses here at Kennedy.
Engler: “Well, really what it does is it allows them to buy into a service that we already have here, it doesn’t necessarily offset costs. They pay for what they use and it doesn’t necessarily save us any monies, per se, but it does allow them to work and have ready access to those propellants.
“We have Air Liquide outside the gate here providing GN2 is [the] big enabler for these guys because they don’t have to create that capability on their own, so we’ve got that in partnership with Air Liquide. Under that contractual relationship, they supply the propellants, and so they pay for what they use, which is a nice thing. We don’t underwrite them, and when they’re using electricity from FP&L [Florida Power & Light], they paying the bills for that, and water from Cocoa Water, and all that kind of stuff, so it’s just the capabilities we provide, Phil’s group manages that interaction with them to ensure we give them services at the time that they need it.
SFI: How might NASA use the SLF [Shuttle Landing Facility] in the future?
Meade: “[There are] plans to use SLF. It’s built into the agreement with Space Florida that we still have the ability to land our NASA aircraft out there. We’ve got a Guppy coming in next week, we’ve got a NASA Guppy that’s coming in, bringing in something for the Orion service module.
“It’s still an asset we have at our disposal, to be able to bring things in. You know, once we start launching our astronauts, I’m sure they’ll be using that runway to land their T-38s. It’s still a capability that we have. None of our current vehicles plan on reentering from space and landing there, it’s more of an aircraft capability for us at this point.”
SFI: Can you give our readers a little more about the future, to bring more companies in and the diversification that we might see out here? Some sneak peeks, if you will.
Engler: “So what I’d point to is a Notice of Availability that we have that has opened up a number of different development categories for companies, so anywhere from clean energy to research and technology and research and development to launch and landing to payload processing and vehicle processing. So those sites are all available, they’re all on the master plan, you can go to the KSC Master Plan website. It’ll show you the development map that we have, and so basically every development category that’s on that master plan site is available for development.
“The Notice of Availability is open, it’s almost done with its first year, and we’ve had a number of responses to that already. It’s open for two years, total, and we’ll have another one that follows that. It allows companies to come in and propose to building at KSC, so when you look at the ability to foster development between what we have and then what Space Florida has at the SLF, there’s a lot of development that still can occur here to continue to diversify Kennedy Space Center to enhance the multi-user spaceport that we’ve created.
“To see us do more and more activities here—it’s really exciting to look at what might be here a year from now that isn’t here now. And then see that keeping on growing and moving forward and continuing to do the basics of getting Americans to space and getting the world to space through Kennedy Space Center, it’s a really exciting time to be here. And it’s only going to get better!”
Meade: “Yeah, if you look at our long-term vision, it’s really about what we call creating an ecosystem. We want to have a healthy ecosystem out here for all the different pieces, parts, components to doing spaceflight. We want to have manufacturing out here, we want to have lab services out here right on hand, we want to have people actually launching the rockets, we want to have people developing payloads.
“Really, it’s about the whole supply chain. And so, when you ask, ‘What are we thinking about in the future?’; if you look at the economics for how that ecosystem has to develop, it has to start with [a] launcher. We’ve got those, we’re starting to launch. We’re now starting to push down that supply chain, so Tom’s out there beating the bushes trying to push further down that supply chain to get those people to come down here and create those R&D capabilities and other further-down parts of that supply chain.”
SFI: That brings up a very good question. You’ve got all these components, but now you’ve got right outside your gate Exploration Park. OneWeb—they’re building satellites out here. Were you guys involved with that, or was that just something that happened because of the assets that you have—would you say that’s an outgrowth of the multi-user spaceport concept?
Meade: “I’d say that’s certainly part of it. And obviously having that here at Kennedy is a nice addition to the Kennedy Space Center, it’s another manufacturing capability. Not on a scale like Blue [Origin], but from a satellite perspective, it’s as big. Blue’s development site is in Exploration Park as well, and it’s part of what we’re trying to do here at Kennedy.
“Again, we’ve made that land available to Space Florida as part of the Exploration Park ecosystem out there, and obviously it’s now borne fruit between Blue and Space Florida and OneLab. Building on that over time, we fully expect to see more of those kinds of capabilities being built here by private companies that want to take advantage of the environment that we have developed here at Kennedy as a multi-user spaceport.”
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.