As NASA puts to rest its 30-year-old space shuttle program, a private space transportation company is accelerating space travel with a new launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base. In a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday at the base, Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) discussed its plans to replace the existing Titan IV launcher with a new launch pad for the Falcon Heavy — which, upon completion, will become the world’s largest launch vehicle by a factor of two.
Standing in front of the site of the new launch pad, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom praised SpaceX for contributing to California’s history of innovation in space travel. “At our best, this state has always been on the leading and cutting edge of space technology,” Newsom said to a crowd of local officials, base officers, and media at the ceremony.
The Falcon Heavy is slated for its first launch in 2013, just months after the planned completion of the pad in late 2012. Boasting four million pounds of thrust used to carry over 53 metric tons to orbit, the Falcon Heavy will also become the most powerful vehicle in the world.
The project will be expensive, costing between $20 million and $30 million in the first 24 months, and an additional $5 million to $10 million in maintenance and launching costs every year afterward. However, the Falcon Heavy will have a price tag only one-third the size of similar projects by other commercial providers and boost the local economy through job creation, SpaceX reps said.
Lompoc Mayor John Linn praised SpaceX for providing jobs in his city, calling the launch pad construction project “a turning point for our community.” SpaceX plans to employ about 1,000 workers, contractors, and consultants during the construction phase of the launch pad. After work is complete, the company will briefly drop down to between 100 and 200 Vandenberg workers before jumping back up to about 1,000 program employees when launch activity increases.
The Vandenberg launch site was a natural fit for SpaceX, which previously developed the Falcon 1 at the base. Although the Falcon 1 was never launched at the site due to delays, SpaceX appears to have formed a lasting partnership with Vandenberg. By 2015, SpaceX plans to schedule up to 16 launches from Vandenberg per year, which could range from Space Station trips to manned missions.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk — who cofounded PayPal and was introduced by Newsom as being among “the most exciting entrepreneurs in the country” — said he thinks the new project will help reverse the downward trajectory of American space travel. “For a long time, it seems like space has gotten worse,” he said. “With Falcon Heavy, we’re pushing that back upward in a positive direction.”
In the long term, SpaceX’s development of the Falcon Heavy fits into its mission “to make human life multiplanetary” by sending “large numbers of people” to Mars. Although Musk acknowledges that a mission to Mars may not be achievable for many years, he said the company is committed to “going to go as far and as fast as we can” toward achieving its ambitious goal.