CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — As Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) ramps up for regular cargo runs to the international space station from Florida, a new launch site to put satellites into polar orbits from California is on track to debut next year.
The company, which in October completed the first of 12 planned space station resupply flights under a $1.6 billion NASA contract, is refurbishing Space Launch Complex-4 (SLC-4) East at Vandenberg Air Force Base, located 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
“It will be online early next year, ” SpaceX’s commercial crew project manager, Garrett Reisman, said at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in New Mexico last month.
The launch complex, originally built for Atlas rockets, was modified in the 1970s for the military’s Titan boosters. It was last used for a Titan 4 launch in October 2005. SpaceX plans to use the pad to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
The company reportedly has spent up to $30 million to remove mobile service and umbilical towers at SLC-4 East and build a 2, 800-square-meter integration and processing hangar. An existing concrete pad and flame trench will be reused.
Two Falcon flights are on the manifest for launch from Vandenberg in 2013. First, an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket will carry a Canadian Space Agency communications and research satellite called Cascade Smallsat and Ionospheric Polar Explorer, or Cassiope. Before the end of the year, SpaceX is aiming to debut its heavy-lift Falcon, a potential game-changer for the U.S. launch industry.
Intelsat, the world’s largest communications satellite operator, last year signed up for the first commercial launch of a Falcon Heavy, which is designed to carry twice as much as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta 4 Heavy, currently the biggest rocket in the U.S. fleet.
With a payload capacity of 53 metric tons to low Earth orbit, Falcon Heavy’s commercial price ranges from $83 million to $128 million — about one-third the cost of Delta 4 or Atlas 5 launch.
Falcon Heavy will fly from SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as well as from Vandenberg.
“[I] am hopeful we will do the first Heavy flight from Vandenberg towards the end of next year, and from the Cape in 2014, ” Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, chief executive and chief technical officer, wrote in an email to SpaceNews.
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