Hawthorne rocket maker SpaceX is a step closer to taking over NASA’s most historic launchpad, where the mighty Saturn V rocket made its moonshot and where the first space shuttle rumbled to life.
The space agency confirmed Friday that it has chosen SpaceX to begin negotiations on a lease to operate Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The pad is where Apollo 11 lifted off in 1969 en route to the first manned moon landing. It is also where the first space shuttle mission in 1981 and the last mission in 2011 were launched.
It’s likely to be the place where the next chapter of manned spaceflight will play out, with NASA's plan to outsource space missions to privately funded companies now that the U.S. fleet of space shuttles is retired.
SpaceX has already taken on the task of hauling cargo to the International Space Station, having made three flights out of 12 to restock the orbiting laboratory. The company has a $1.6-billion contract with NASA to do so.
The next phase is carrying astronauts. Last year, SpaceX won $440 million from NASA to make its spacecraft astronaut-ready.
SpaceX's capsule is designed to carry seven astronauts. The company is aiming for a manned test flight by 2015.
SpaceX, officially named Space Exploration Technologies Corp., won out on the pad over Blue Origin, a little-known aerospace company founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
Blue Origin, based in Kent, Wash., wanted to lease the launchpad and protested earlier this year when NASA asked for proposals -- it said NASA gave SpaceX an unfair advantage.
The Government Accountability Office looked into the matter and on Thursday denied Blue Origin’s protest.
In a statement, SpaceX said it “will gladly accommodate other commercial providers interested in using launch complex 39A for NASA human-rated orbital spaceflight.”
NASA said it will begin working with SpaceX to negotiate the terms of its lease for the pad. During those negotiations, the agency said, it will not discuss details of the lease agreement.
Meanwhile, NASA said it is hard at work assembling the Orion spacecraft and preparing its infrastructure for the Space Launch System rocket. It will launch from a nearby pad and take American astronauts far into space, including to an asteroid and Mars.