U.S. Air Force, SpaceX Strike Deal for Cape Canaveral Launches
A SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket launches on the firm's second test flight on March 20, 2007.
Credit: SpaceX.

WASHINGTON - Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has been granted a five-year license to launch from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Station, the U.S. Air Force Space Command announced April 26.

According to the release, the Air Force Space Command's 45th Space Wing will grant a license to SpaceX to operate on Space Launch Complex 40, which was previously used for Titan 4 launches.

"The SpaceX license agreement is a good news story for the Air Force and nation," U.S. Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said in a statement. "These types of agreements encourage entrepreneurial space achievement which can benefit both the [Department of Defense] and commercial space industries."

"We are very appreciative of the support of the Air Force and Gen. Chilton in giving us launch pad 40," SpaceX President Elon Musk said in an April 26 telephone interview. "It was important for us to get launch pad 40 because that allows us to do both the Falcon 9 and Falcon 9- heavy from the Cape. It was really the only launch pad that could support our Falcon 9 heavy activities."

To date, SpaceX has been operating from a private island launch complex in the Pacific Ocean's Kwajalein Atoll, conducting two demonstration flights of its smaller Falcon 1 rocket. Both missions failed to reach orbit, but SpaceX was sufficiently pleased with the rocket's performance during its March flight that it has declared the rocket operational and is pressing ahead with its plans for the launch of a Pentagon satellite this fall.

Under the terms of the license, the Air Force retained the rights to let entities besides SpaceX use the launch complex, but Musk said he does not expect any competition for use of the pad in the next five years. "Who else expects to build a heavy-lift launcher in that timeframe?" he said.

The license agreement requires SpaceX to pay for "all improvements, construction, and maintenance associated with their operations at SLC-40," the release said, referring to Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape, which had been previously used for Titan 3 and Titan 4 launches.

Musk said SpaceX expects to spend "several tens of millions of dollars" getting the pad ready for the Falcon 9's planned late 2008 debut. That launch is being conducted, Musk said, for a classified U.S. government payload.

Once the launch complex renovations are completed, Musk said the pad will be able to handle "the full range of commercial and government payloads."

Musk said all six Falcon 9 launches SpaceX has manifested through 2010 will be flown from the Cape, including a launch for Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace and three flights the company plans to conduct for NASA to demonstrate the rocket's ability to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

For now, at least, Musk said SpaceX has no plans to launch Falcon 1 from the Cape and would continue to operate that vehicle from Kwajalien and eventually California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Meanwhile, Musk said SpaceX tentatively is shooting for October to conduct its next Falcon 1 launch, a Pentagon-funded mission to deliver the experimental TacSat-1 to orbit.