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NASA plans Kennedy Space Center expansion with new launch pads 39C and 39D

Pads 39A and 39B at the Kennedy Space Center
Pads 39A and 39B at the Kennedy Space Center
NASA (public domain)

According to a Wednesday story in USA Today, NASA has unveiled its plan to expand the capabilities of the Kennedy Space Center. It includes several new launch pads, two seaports, a second runway and a rail link to Port Canaveral. Two of the launch pads are designated 39C and 39D, suggesting that they could be used to support Space Launch System operations. Currently only existing pad 39B will be available for SLS launches. 39A has been leased to SpaceX for its own commercial operations.

The idea is that the Kennedy Space Center will remain the biggest launch complex in the world, supporting NASA, Defense Department, and commercial launch operations. It will have some competition for that role. SpaceX is likely to build its own space port in south Texas. A number of space ports that would support horizontal takeoff and landing vehicles such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and XCOR’s Lynx are being developed in California, New Mexico, and Texas.

The idea that NASA may be thinking of expanding its capability to launch the heavy lift Space Launch System is telling. By the 2030s, according to space agency plans, it will be heavily engaged in sending astronauts to Mars. This will require multiple launches of the SLS in a short period of time to accomplish. Hence, the addition of extra launch pads. The pads would likely also be used for commercial operations.

Besides competition from other commercial space ports, NASA faces a number of hurdles if it wants to expand KSC. First, its budgets are projected to be flat for the foreseeable future. A recent report from the National Research Council suggested that this would essentially foreclose any hopes that NASA has for conducting space exploration, especially to Mars. Second, there are environmental regulatory hurdles that have to be overcome before the expansion can take place. In short, the plans are great, but will remain so unless money and leadership are forthcoming to make them reality.