NASA is tipping its hat toward the likes of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. with plans to announce a launch pad for the use of commercial space flight.
The pad is called Launch Pad 39A and is located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"We remain committed to right-sizing our portfolio by reducing the number of facilities that are underused, duplicative, or not required to support the Space Launch System and Orion," Kennedy Center Director Bob Cabana said. "Launch Complex 39A is not required to support our asteroid retrieval mission or our eventual missions to Mars. But it's in the agency's and our nation's best interest in meeting our commitment and direction to enable commercial space operations and allow the aerospace industry to operate and maintain the pad and related facilities."
So far SpaceX and United Launch Alliance have been named as companies which may use the launch pad. If its proposed Liberty rocket comes to fruition, then ATK could be another user.
Originally NASA designed Launch Pad 39A in support of the Apollo program. It was later modified to launch space shuttles. Meanwhile, nearby Launch Pad 39B is being updated for government and commercial launch purposes. Future users of 39B include NASA's Orion spacecraft and heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket.
NASA has looked to private space companies for launch services since the end of the shuttle program in 2011. Both Orbital Sciences and SpaceX have been given contracts to ferry cargo to the International Space Station. Meanwhile, Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation have been chosen to make crewed spacecraft.
NASA has been relying on Russia in sending astronauts into space. Recently returned International Space Station commander Chris Hadfield launched with two flight engineers aboard the Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in December.
Meanwhile, private companies are gaining an increasingly strong hold on the number of space launches. Orbital Sciences Corp. recently used NASA's Wallops Island facility in Virginia for a test launch of its Antares rocket. Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to send cargo missions to the International Space Station. Meanwhile, SpaceX is in talks with states including Texas and Florida for the placement of a commercial spaceport.