July 13, 2011

SpaceX To Begin Groundbreaking In California

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is set to break ground on a launch pad and hangar at a California Air Force Base for its Falcon Heavy, which will be the world's most powerful rocket.

SpaceX said it is investing $30 million at Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex 4-East for the soon to be developed 22-story tall Falcon Heavy rocket. SpaceX hopes to use the launch pad for the first time by the end of next year in a demonstration flight for the US government. After that, the company's goal is to launch satellites for the military and commercial sectors.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk will meet with state and local officials on Wednesday for the groundbreaking ceremony at the base northwest of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

Vandenberg has been primarily used in the past for launching spy satellites because its location is considered ideal for putting satellites into a north-to-south orbit. And with its worldwide customer base in launching telecommunications satellites, SpaceX is expected to broaden the nature of work done at the base.

"SpaceX is going to be the biggest game in town at Vandenberg," Musk said during an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "We're going to put Vandenberg on the world stage."

Musk, who made a fortune when he sold PayPal in 2002, said SpaceX hopes the $30 million to build the complex will also create jobs. He forecasts the company will have 1,000 employees working at the base by 2015, and will be launching as many as eight times per year. Currently the company only employs 1,400 and has only two successful test launches of its smaller Falcon 9 rockets.

"SpaceX's first launch here will undoubtedly be a huge event for everyone involved," Lt. Austin Fallin, a spokesman at Vandenberg, told the Los Angeles Times. "SpaceX is expected to have a big presence out here in the coming years."

Musk said he was confident that SpaceX's low-cost launch sales pitch will appeal to potential customers. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract to service the International Space Station and a $492 million contract with telecommunications firm Iridium Communications to launch satellites from Vandenberg aboard its Falcon 9 rocket.

Musk's ultimate goal, however, is to secure contracts with the Air Force. "We want to launch large satellites for the Air Force," he told the Los Angeles Times. "The aim is for the Air Force to open up the competition."

Currently, the Air Force relies on United Launch Alliance -- a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing -- to lift its $1 billion spy satellites into orbit. To lift its heaviest satellites, the Air Force relies on ULA's Delta IV Heavy rocket, which blasted off for the first time from Vandenberg in January.

The Delta IV Heavy, which is currently the country's largest unmanned rocket, is capable of lifting a maximum payload of 50,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. SpaceX's rocket is expected to be more than twice as powerful, capable of carrying 117,000 pounds and go for a fraction of the Delta IV Heavy price, said Musk.

Delta IV costs up to $275 million to launch once, according to Federal Aviation Administration estimates. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy would cost between $80 million and $125 million per launch, according to the company.

But SpaceX will have to prove it is capable of launching successfully for potential customers to move to the cheaper option.

SpaceX's first rocket -- Falcon 1 -- failed three times before it successfully carried a satellite into space. The company's Falcon 9 and its Dragon space capsule, which NASA sees as a possible successor to the retired Space Shuttle program, has made just two successful flights into orbit, with a third scheduled for this year.

"With the last launch of the shuttle, there will be a lot more eyes on what the commercial companies are doing," Lompoc Mayor John Linn told the Los Angeles Times. "There's a new excitement in the space industry and with this new pad, Space X is bringing that attention to us."

Crews working at Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex have already demolished existing structures and will soon build the new hangar that will house the 22-story Falcon Heavy. They will also have to retrofit the launch pad to fit the rocket. The construction phase is expected to take 18 months, said Musk.

SpaceX expects Falcon Heavy to make its maiden launch in 2013. The rocket will launch from both Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the company is refurbishing a launch site.


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