Spaceflight Insider

KSC showcases its future as multi-user spaceport

Aerial view of Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39 (A and B). At pad 'A' a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket while NASA's Space Launch System super heavy-lift rocket sits at Pad 'B'.

Aerial view of Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39 (pads A and B). At pad “A” a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket rests while NASA’s Space Launch System super-heavy-lift rocket sits at Pad “B”. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA has made major strides in its seven-year effort to transform Kennedy Space Center (KSC) into a multi-user spaceport. Efforts to date include modifying Launch Complex 39B and the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to support the Space Launch System (SLS), institutional and infrastructure changes to support commercial customers, and changes to one of the Shuttle Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs) to support the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.

Left to right: KSC Director Bob Cabana, Nancy Bray, director of Spaceport Integration and Services, and Tom Engler, director of Center Planning and Development. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

Left to right: KSC Director Bob Cabana, Nancy Bray, director of Spaceport Integration and Services, and Tom Engler, director of Center Planning and Development. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

The vision of the multi-user spaceport

Director of KSC since 2008, former astronaut Bob Cabana has been the driving force behind the center’s efforts to transition from a government operation supporting only the Space Shuttle to a public-private facility capable of supporting NASA and multiple commercial customers. These changes have included leasing launch facilities like Launch Complex 39A to SpaceX for 20 years. “We didn’t need it. [Launch Complex] 39B can support three launches a year […] otherwise it would have sat there and rusted.”

In cooperation with Space Florida and the U.S. Air Force, KSC has leased properties and facilities to SpaceX, Boeing, and Blue Origin to support new rocket manufacturing, launch, and landing facilities. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) also has a say in what happens at the center, as they are responsible for performing controlled burns to prevent forest fires on the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge.

That is a lot of players working on the Florida property, and anyone requiring usage of the roads, range, nitrogen pipeline, or other shared resources must work with the Spaceport Integration Office and its master schedule to avoid conflicts.

As part of the master plan, Tom Engler, Director of KSC’s Commercial Planning and Development Office, also announced a Notice of Availability (NOA), opening KSC properties to leasing by aerospace and renewable energy technologies. Engler told Spaceflight Insider, “We’re open to anything that supports NASA’s mission.”

Preparing for SLS

KSC Vehicle Assembly Building VAB Space Launch System SLS NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

KSC Vehicle Assembly Building and the SLS. Image Credit: NASA

The 50-year-old Vehicle Assembly Building, first built to stack Apollo-Saturn launch vehicles and then retooled to support the Space Shuttle, is now getting a third career assembling NASA’s super-heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. This reworking included removing all of the interior platforms on High Bay 3, which had been customized to match the shape of the Shuttle launch stack.

The new internal arrangement features 11 different platforms, which not only slide in and out like dresser drawers to surround the vehicle but also have moveable inserts that can be added or removed to match the outer mold line of future versions of the SLS. This flexibility will enable High Bay 3 to support multiple future vehicle configurations without the need to completely gut and remake the VAB – a process that has taken six years.

On the launch operations side of things, NASA has modified the Mobile Launcher originally intended for the Constellation Program to meet the SLS’ needs. Like the Apollo-Saturn Mobile Launch Platforms, the Mobile Launcher will have a service and umbilical support tower emplaced on the actual platform. The Mobile Launcher will be moved into the VAB via the massive crawler-transporter to test the new VAB systems in late August or early September.

With the launch tower now on the Mobile Launcher, the actual launch pad, Launch Complex 39B, has become quite bare. Most of its Shuttle-era hardware, including the fixed and rotating service structures, has been removed. The pad includes three new lightning towers, new elevators and plumbing to support the updated Mobile Launcher, and new bricks and a single flame deflector for the pad’s flame trench. LC-39B now will send all flames from a liftoff into a northerly direction.

Boeing CST-100 Starliner Boeing image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Boeing’s CST-100 “Starliner” spacecraft. Image Credit: Boeing

Getting ready for Starliner

Next door to the VAB, the three Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs) have been taken over by new customers, with OPF-1 and -2 being occupied by the Air Force’s secretive X-37B program. OPF-3 houses Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial spacecraft. Starliner is Boeing’s entry into the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the Boeing program, showed members of the media spacecraft hardware in work in OPF-3:

  • Spacecraft number 1’s lower dome – where most of the critical avionics are housed – undergoes power-on testing in March at the White Sands Test Facility.
  • Spacecraft number 2 is currently being assembled in Florida and will be sent to Boeing’s El Segundo, California, facility for environmental testing before undergoing uncrewed flight testing.
  • Spacecraft number 3 will be part of crewed flight testing. Mulholland said that the first uncrewed Starliner flight is scheduled for June 2018, while the first crewed flight test is scheduled for August 2018.

With SpaceX cargo operations starting at LC-39A in February 2017, SpaceX and Boeing crewed flights to the International Space Station starting in 2018, and the SLS’ first launch to the Moon scheduled for late 2018, KSC’s vision of a multi-user spaceport is coming to life.



Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.

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