Down to Earth with a bump as cuts force Nasa space sell-off

NASA will sell off some of the American space programme's most historic buildings as part of a massive cost-cutting fire sale. Picture: AP
NASA will sell off some of the American space programme's most historic buildings as part of a massive cost-cutting fire sale. Picture: AP
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NASA is to sell off some of the American space programme’s most historic buildings as part of a massive cost-cutting fire sale.

A launchpad that saw Apollo rockets blast off for the moon, hangars that once housed the space shuttle fleet and the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building at Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre are all included in the sale, forced on National Aeronautics and Space Agency by the government’s decision to cut off vital maintenance funds.

And while many of Nasa’s iconic facilities, including the three-mile shuttle landing runway, one of the world’s longest, are likely to find new uses in the nascent commercial space industry, there is a danger some of the treasures from more than 50 years of manned spaceflight could be left to disintegrate.

“Our only other choice, other than finding someone to use them, is to abandon them,” said Joyce Riquelme, Nasa’s planning and development director at Kennedy. “The facilities out here can’t be in an abandoned state for long before they become unusable.”

It is not quite a “going out of business” sale, but it’s close given that the last of the now retired space shuttles flew its final mission in July 2011 and Nasa is still several years from test-launching its own next-generation space rockets intended to one day carry astronauts to Mars.

Federal funding of the Space Shuttle programme ends in September, leaving the agency with no money for the upkeep of buildings and equipment it no longer has a use for anyway.

“It’s part of the new paradigm,” said Dale Ketcham, director of the Florida-based Spaceport Research and Technology Institute, which has worked closely with Nasa and the state-funded Space Florida organisation to bring new business to KSC. “Nasa’s going to have a tight, painful budget for years into the future. Florida and other states in the space business are going to have to show how smart and creative they are.”

No price list is being circulated with the details of the buildings, facilities, machinery and equipment available for lease, or in many cases for sale. Nasa wants bidders to submit their proposals in confidence and then consider them privately.

“Over the next few months, I’m hopeful to see several agreements.” Ms Riquelme said. “We have a lot of things in discussion, realising that these major facilities have been funded by the Space Shuttle programme.”

One of the first steps in gearing the 140,000-acre Kennedy site towards the fledgling private space industry came late in 2011 when Boeing signed a 15-year lease to occupy one of the three giant space shuttle hangars, known as orbiter processing facilities, into a new home for its CST-100 space capsule. Boeing is one of several companies vying for funds to build spacecraft to carry US astronauts to the international space stations, and because Nasa could not be seen to prefer one above another, it gave the building to Space Florida to arrange its lease.

The two other shuttle hangars, and the 160-metre tall VAB, which saw Saturn V rockets fixed to Apollo spacecraft in the Sixties and Seventies, could soon be abandoned if no deals are made. Along with launchpad 39A, which saw Neil Armstrong lift-off for the Moon in July 1969 aboard Apollo XI, along with dozens of shuttle launches, the buildings are vulnerable to swift deterioration because of the humid Florida air and their position on the Atlantic coast.

“You don’t want it to sit out there for too long,” Dr Ketcham, who worked on the shuttle as a Nasa employee, said of the launchpad. “It will rust to a point where it’s of no value.”