Once used for Shuttle landings, iconic runway cleared for horizontal launches
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — With the close of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the future of the facilities that supported the program was in doubt. The mantra of Kennedy Space Center becoming a “multi-user spaceport” was drummed out at every event where the center’s future was discussed. With every passing day, that mantra appears to becoming a reality.
One of the most prominent shuttle-era assets that appeared to no longer have a use, the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), has now been resurrected to enable a new era of space exploration to begin. On Nov. 8, 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Launch Site Operator License (LSOL) to Space Florida for operations at the SLF. Space Florida and NASA signed a 30-year property agreement for operations and management of the SLF in 2015.
“This accomplishment would not have been possible without genuine collaboration to a shared goal,” said Space Florida President and CEO Frank DiBello in a statement.
According to Space Florida, the issuance of the LSOL was the culmination of a multi-year effort by the organization and the FAA requiring significant policy, safety and environmental review and planning. Space Florida submitted its 120+ page application to the FAA in February 2018.
The SLF was built in 1974 and opened for flights in 1976. The concrete runway is 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) long and 300 feet (91 meters) wide with 50-foot (15-meter) shoulders and is capable of supporting a wide variety of aircraft and horizontal launch and landing vehicles. Between 1984 and 2011, the SLF supported 78 Space Shuttle landings.
An array of rising stars in the aerospace arena have been expanding their operations in Florida with SpaceX, Blue Origin and Moon Express topping the list. SpaceX began breaking barriers out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40. However with all the things the Hawthorne, California, wanted to accomplish, it had to grow and entered into a 20-year lease with NASA for the use of historic Launch Complex 39A in April of 2014. With the LSOL, the SLF could offer those or similar companies comparable opportunities.
“One of the most famous runways in the world is now one step closer to becoming Florida’s next generation commercial spaceport,” said Space Florida Senior Vice President and General Manager Jim Kuzma. “We look forward to the new capabilities and customers that this Launch Site Operator License will draw to the State.”
The license will allow use of the facility by multiple horizontal launch and landing customers. The runway could support operations by aircraft that carry an air-launched vehicle, including Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket. Other potential users could be Stratolaunch Systems carrier aircraft, Virgin Orbit with its LauncherOne and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo.
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.