SpaceX breaks ground on launch pad

2011-07-14 13:31

Vandenberg Air Force Base - An unused pad at the nation's West Coast launch complex is being retrofitted to send up the world's most powerful rocket.

Private rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies is spending between $20m and $30m to renovate the site that will be home to its Falcon Heavy, the largest rocket since the retired Saturn V that hurled astronauts to the moon.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk gathered with state and elected officials on Wednesday for a groundbreaking ceremony at the coastal base northwest of Los Angeles.

The launch pad, built in the 1960s and remodelled over the years, has not been used since 2005, when a Titan 4 rocket last launched from there.

Crews demolished existing structures around the pad and will begin work on a massive hangar to store the Falcon Heavy, set to arrive at the base by the end of next year. Its maiden launch is scheduled for 2013.

Unusual step

The Hawthorne-based company will also refurbish its launch facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida so that the heavy lift rocket could blast off from both coasts.

SpaceX already has a Nasa contract to supply the International Space Station with cargo using its smaller Falcon 9. Though the company has not yet signed customers for the Falcon Heavy, it hopes that its presence at Vandenberg will help it gain Air Force contracts.

"We're battling to compete for the Air Force launch business," Musk said the day before the groundbreaking. "We've really made headway in every market except the Air Force."

The Defence Department relies on United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, to lift its spy satellites into low-Earth orbit.

SpaceX, which takes the unusual step of publishing its launch prices, thinks it can do it more cheaply.

A launch aboard the Falcon Heavy costs between $80m and $125m - one third the cost of a Delta 4, according to SpaceX.

  • Ross - 2011-07-14 15:51

    Elon Musk, another South African genius we are proud of. It is however a pity that he had to emigrate to realise his dreams.

  • Wernher - 2011-07-14 19:08

    One third less the cost per launch ain't all that great, considering they're comparing to technologies that's about 40 years old. If we go at this rate, we'll only be 1/6th better than we where 80 years ago by then and that's rather pathetic looking at the exorbitant amounts invested by this and previous generations. By now the overall technology improvements should at the very least be 1/6th, and not 1/3rd. For example, the manufacturing of computers not only become vastly less expensive than it was back then, but also enormously more powerfull. Although the cost of construction, engineering and scientific research have sky-rocketed - which is possibly the main reason for this. However, this is mainly due to things like inflation and the mismanagement of resources over time that in part has lead to this, paying more for less seems to set the stage for generations to come. One third per launch less is pathetic, and no achievement by any means.

      SkepTick - 2011-07-16 06:08

      Absolute rot; cutting the cost of things mechanical (aircraft, automobiles, machinery) by two thirds is not pathetic, its an achievement without precedent. Only computer memory and micro-electronic devices follow the improvement law of doubling caoacity and halving costs every 18 months.

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