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SpaceX is making $30-million bet on rocket at Vandenberg

The Hawthorne company is set to break ground on a launchpad and hangar at the Air Force base for its Falcon Heavy, which would be the world's most powerful rocket.

July 12, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

A sprawling hangar to house the assembly of the world's most powerful rocket and a launchpad capable of handling the earthshaking blast is being developed northwest of Santa Barbara at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Hawthorne-based rocket venture SpaceX said it was investing $30 million at the base's Space Launch Complex 4-East for its upcoming 22-story Falcon Heavy rocket.

The company, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., hopes to use the launchpad for the first time at the end of next year in a demonstration flight of the 27-engine rocket for the U.S. government. After that, the company hopes to use the facility to launch satellites for military and commercial customers.

Situated along the Pacific Ocean, Vandenberg has primarily been used for launching spy satellites since the beginning of the Cold War because its location is considered ideal for putting satellites into a north-to-south orbit.

Because of its worldwide customer base in launching telecommunications satellites, SpaceX is expected to broaden the nature of work done at the base.

"SpaceX is going to be the biggest game in town at Vandenberg," Elon Musk, the company's chief executive, said in an interview with The Times. "We're going to put Vandenberg on the world stage."

Musk, 40, who made a fortune when he sold online payment business PayPal Inc. in 2002, said SpaceX hopes the $30 million to build the complex will also create jobs. By 2015, he forecasts the company will have 1,000 people working there and will be launching as often as eight times a year.

Those are heady numbers considering SpaceX's current workforce stands at 1,400, it has just two successful test launches of its smaller nine-engine Falcon 9 rockets and has yet to launch the Falcon Heavy.

"SpaceX's first launch here will undoubtedly be a huge event for everyone involved," said Lt. Austin Fallin, a spokesman at Vandenberg. "SpaceX is expected to have a big presence out here in the coming years."  

The company is set to break ground Wednesday on the launchpad even though there are no guarantees that the military or NASA will step forward to pay for the Falcon Heavy to lift its payloads into space someday.

Musk said he was confident that his company's sales pitch of low-cost launches will appeal to potential customers. The company has a backlog of launches, which includes a $1.6-billion contract to service the International Space Station and a $492-million contract with telecommunications company Iridium Communications Inc. of McLean, Va., to launch satellites from Vandenberg aboard the Falcon 9.

But Musk's goal at Vandenberg is to secure contracts with the Air Force.

"We want to launch large satellites for the Air Force," he said. "The aim is for the Air Force to open up the competition."

The Pentagon currently has only has one launch provider, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., to lift its precious $1-billion spy satellites into orbit.

To lift its heaviest satellites, the Air Force uses United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy rocket. The 23-story rocket blasted off for the first time from Vandenberg in January. It was the tallest ever to be launched from the base and received plenty of attention — the kind that boosters of the nearby Lompoc area want to see more often.

"The hotels were booked up, restaurants were busy and people were clogging up the streets when that thing went off," said Dennis Headrick of the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce. "We could have balanced the budget if we charged a toll on the road to and from the beach. There was a constant parade of cars."

The Delta IV Heavy, which is currently the nation's largest unmanned rocket, is capable of lifting a maximum payload of about 50,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy is set to be twice as powerful, capable of lifting 117,000 pounds to low Earth orbit and go for a fraction of the Delta IV's price, Musk said.

Launches on the Falcon Heavy would cost $80 million to $125 million, according to SpaceX. Each launch on a Delta IV Heavy costs up to $275 million, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated.

Musk said his company could keep its costs down because it makes almost all of its parts in-house, mostly in a complex in Hawthorne where fuselages for Boeing's 747 jumbo jet were once assembled.

But the rocket industry is notoriously difficult to enter and littered with failed attempts.

SpaceX's first rocket — the Falcon 1 — failed three times before it successfully carried a satellite into space. The company's 18-story Falcon 9 and its Dragon space capsule, which is seen by NASA as a possible successor to the retiring space shuttle, has made just two flights into orbit, with a third slated for this year.

"With the last launch of the shuttle, there will be a lot more eyes on what the commercial companies are doing," Lompoc Mayor John Linn said. "There's a new excitement in the space industry and with this new pad, Space X is bringing that attention to us."

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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