In the battle of the space billionaires, Elon Musk's SpaceX has won out over Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to take over Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Apollo moonshots and the first and the last space shuttle missions were launched.
NASA announced its decision on Friday, one day after the Government Accountability Office rejected Blue Origin's protest of the selection process. NASA said it continued evaluating the two companies' proposals for using the pad even while the GAO deliberated over the protest.
Pad 39A has served as the starting point for space missions since the 1960s, including Apollo 11 in 1969, the shuttle Columbia's first flight in 1981 and the shuttle Atlantis' last mission in 2011. After the retirement of the shuttle fleet, NASA determined that it no longer needed the pad. The space agency decided to hand management of 39A over to a commercial operator that could upgrade the facility, saving taxpayers an estimated $100,000 a month in maintenance costs.
"The reuse of LC-39A is part of NASA’s work to transform the Kennedy Space Center into a 21st-century launch complex capable of supporting both government and commercial users," NASA said in Friday's statement.
NASA will retain control of Kennedy Space Center's other shuttle pad, 39B, for development of its heavy-lift Space Launch System. That rocket is destined to send astronauts beyond Earth orbit, to an asteroid and onward to Mars.
SpaceX proposed using 39A for liftoffs of its Falcon 9 rocket, and eventually for its yet-to-be-built Falcon Heavy rocket. The California-based company is already launching the Falcon 9 from a nearby pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, for commercial satellite missions as well as cargo missions to the International Space Station. Future launches could include missions that send NASA astronauts to the station.
If NASA's negotiations bear fruit, SpaceX would add a significant new option to its launch capabilities, which include a pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as well as the Cape Canaveral pad. For years, the company has been considering the development of additional commercial facilities, such as a potential launch site near Brownsville, Texas.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, using proceeds from the sale of his stake in PayPal. Today, he serves as SpaceX's CEO and chief designer. He also runs Tesla Motors, an electric-car maker, and is the chairman of Solar City, America's leading residential solar-power provider. Forbes magazine estimates his net worth at $6.7 billion.
Bezos, whose net worth is thought to be around $27.2 billion, founded Blue Origin in 2000 as a rocket venture separate from Amazon.com. The company is developing suborbital as well as orbital spaceships, but it hasn't yet sent payloads into space. Blue Origin currently uses a pad on Bezos-owned land in West Texas for its flight tests and has been looking for additional launch capability.
Blue Origin proposed managing 39A as a multi-user facility, with services provided to United Launch Alliance and other rocket companies. The company anticipated using the pad for its own orbital development activities starting in 2018.
Details to come
In Friday's statement, NASA said it would begin negotiations with SpaceX rather than Blue Origin. However, the space agency held off from laying out the rationale for its decision.
"Further details about NASA’s decision will be provided to each proposer when NASA furnishes the source selection statement to the proposers," the agency said. "In addition, NASA will offer each the opportunity to meet to discuss NASA’s findings related to the proposer’s individual proposal. NASA will release the source selection statement to the public once each proposer has been consulted to ensure that any proprietary information has been appropriately redacted."
NASA said it would not discuss details of the pending lease agreement during its negotiations with SpaceX. Rob Meyerson, Blue Origin's president and program manager, said in an emailed statement that he hoped NASA "will preserve options to make this national asset available for multiple commercial users."
SpaceX spokeswoman Hannah Post said via email that her company was "pleased to have been selected by NASA to enter into final negotiations for the use and operation" of Pad 39A.
"As previously stated, SpaceX will gladly accommodate other commercial providers interested in using Launch Complex 39A for NASA human-rated orbital spaceflight," Post said.
More about Kennedy Space Center's future:
- Kennedy Space Center wants to unload launchers
- Video: Kennedy Space Center is looking for tenants
- Florida agency to take over shuttle landing strip
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.