The NASA Kennedy Space Center launch pad from which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin blasted off to the moon has sat dormant for years. In a few days, its next chapter will begin.
On Sunday, SpaceX, an aerospace company based in Hawthorne, Calif. that rents the historic Launch Complex 39A from NASA, tested the engines of its Falcon 9 rocket there in preparation to deliver supplies and science experiments to the International Space Station (ISS) on February 18. This will be the company’s 10th cargo trip to the ISS under its contract with NASA, according to Space.com, and its first launch from 39A in Florida.
“Falcon 9 rocket now vertical at Cape Canaveral on launch complex 39-A,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk posted on Instagram Sunday, alongside a photo of the rocket. “This is the same launch pad used by the Saturn V rocket that first took people to the moon in 1969. We are honored to be allowed to use it,” Mr. Musk wrote.
SpaceX signed a 20-year lease to take over the pad in 2014 and has spent the ensuing years fixing it up. NASA stopped using the launch pad in 2011, when its 30-year-old space shuttle program was shut down after Atlantis, one of five NASA space shuttles of that era, blasted off from 39A toward the ISS in the last-ever US shuttle mission.
Throughout the decades-long shuttle program, NASA’s spacecraft – Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour – carried people into orbit, launched and maintained satellites, and made it possible for humans to build the space station. The 18-year-old international science laboratory orbits 240 miles above Earth.
And starting Saturday, SpaceX will use the site to launch cargo in the Dragon capsule aboard its Falcon 9 rocket. The company hopes to use the Florida launch pad to send humans to the ISS in about a year.
“That is a big deal. It’s absolutely symbolic we are launching from there,” former NASA launch director Bob Sieck told the Orlando Sentinel on February 8.
Since shutting down its space shuttle program, NASA has relied on the Russian space fleet and, increasingly, on the private space industry to step in to fill the void in space exploration and to make it more affordable.
In addition to SpaceX, NASA has contracted with Orbital ATK, an aerospace and defense contractor based in Dulles, Va., and with Colorado-based aerospace company Sierra Nevada Corporation, to deliver cargo to the ISS for years to come.
The agency also is relying on SpaceX and Boeing to start delivering astronauts to space as soon as possible, though both companies are facing technical delays.
Though the delays are necessary to ensure astronaut safety, they put pressure on NASA because of the high cost of sending astronauts to the space station. The agency pays $82 million to the Russian space agency for each seat it reserves aboard Russia’s Soyuz rocket, the only one capable of ferrying people to space for now. According to recent estimates by NASA, seats aboard SpaceX and Boeing rockets could cost a comparatively cheap $58 million each.
"Given the delays in initiating a US capacity to transport crew to the ISS, NASA has extended its contract with the Russian Space Agency for astronaut transportation through 2018 at an additional cost of $490 million,” wrote NASA's Office of Inspector General in a September audit. “If the Commercial Crew Program experiences additional delays, NASA may need to buy additional seats from Russia to ensure a continued US presence on the ISS.”
Despite pushing private companies to innovate in space technologies, NASA hasn't given up on its own rockets. The agency is working with Boeing to build the Space Launch System rocket, which is expected to carry astronauts into deep space one day. It is scheduled to take its first test flight in fall of 2018, when it will to launch from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39B, a site located down the street from SpaceX’s historic launch pad.
[Editor's Note: This article was updated with more accurate information about SpaceX's plans for the launch pad 39A.]