NASA opens new launchpad at Kennedy Space Center meant to serve multiple commercial launch customers

Darrell Etherington
·1-min read
An aerial view of Launch Complex 39 Area shows the Vehicle Assembly Building (center), with the Launch Control Center on its right. On the west side (lower end) are (left to right) the Orbiter Processing Facility, Process Control Center and Operations Support Building October 14, 1999. Looking east (upper end) are Launch Pads 39-A (right) and 39-B (just above the VAB). The crawlerway stretches between the VAB and the launch pads toward the Atlantic Ocean, seen beyond them. At right is the turn basin where new external tanks are brought via ship, shown at its offloading site. (Photo Courtesy of NASA)

NASA has finished work on a new launchpad at its Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- Launch Complex 48 (LC-48), a pad that will be able to support smaller launch vehicles than either LC-39A or B, or SLC-41, which currently host SpaceX, SLS and ULA launches, respectively. It's designed to be able to be used by multiple providers, with an absence of permanent structures that allows for flexible configuration depending on who's using it.

The purpose of LC-48 is very explicitly to fill "a need for new, low-cost launch systems with very fast turnaround cycles," according to KSC senior project manager Keith Britton speaking to NASASpaceflight.com. That sounds an awful lot like some of the forthcoming launch models being developed and tested by companies including Astra, a small launcher that designed its business around the now-ended DARPA competition for a responsive launch demonstration.

While companies like Virgin Orbit are aiming to create responsive, mobile launch capabilities by obviating the need for a specialized pad altogether, they are in the minority when it comes to small launch startups in terms of skipping the need for vertical take-off altogether. Many more companies, including Astra, as well as Firefly, Orbex and the newly revived Vector Launch, are focusing on small rockets that can be launched with scaled-down requirements in terms of both people and infrastructure required on site to add flexibility and mobility into their models.

LC-48 doesn't yet have any actual customers booked -- NASA says it's in discussions with a number of companies, but none are yet officially signed customers. The agency does, however, anticipate some launches potentially taking place from the new pad as early as next year.