Just a few feet from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, Kennedy Space Center's easternmost artery runs along the coast, connecting some of the most significant and active launch pads in the world.
Philips Parkway connects five pads overseen by the Air Force and NASA, but a new entrant is joining the fray: Launch Complex 48.
The NASA-developed complex will sit between KSC's pad 39A to the north and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 41 to the south, the latter of which is operated by United Launch Alliance for Atlas V rockets. Its target use: commercial companies wanting a pad from which to launch their small rockets.
"This is a NASA capability that is being made available to whatever small launcher company wants to come in here and do small vehicle launches," Tom Engler, KSC's director of planning and development, told FLORIDA TODAY. "It's not designed to handle what you would consider medium-class like (SpaceX) Falcon 9 or (ULA) Atlas V-type launch vehicles."
Slated for completion by the end of the year, LC-48's first phase will consist of a road that intersects with Philips Parkway from the west. The pad itself will have three "prongs," the center of which will be a triangular slab of concrete for companies to roll out their rockets. Two smaller prongs to the east and west will allow for the separation of liquid oxygen tanks from fuel tanks.
The launch pad itself, minus the side storage tanks, would measure 54 feet wide by 42 feet long, according to a NASA environmental analysis completed in February. Maximum liftoff weight for small rockets would be 300,000 pounds and no landings would be allowed
Beyond that, companies will have to bring their own equipment. That would include the vehicles necessary to transport rockets and payloads to the pad, lift them vertically and eventually launch – plus other miscellaneous needs. And unlike 39A to to the north, which is leased by SpaceX and used only for its needs, 48 could be used by a variety of companies in the expanding small launch sector.
That industry is seeing substantial growth in companies launching smaller payloads. Entrants include Rocket Lab, which launches from New Zealand; Firefly, which recently announced it secured the Cape's Launch Complex 20; and Relativity Space, a California-based company that aims to 3D-print its rockets. Aerospace giants like Boeing are also considering smaller spacecraft like its Phantom Express spaceplane, which could take off vertically from 48 and then land horizontally just a few miles away at KSC's former Shuttle Landing Facility.
"There's a number of companies out there looking for launch capabilities and this pad would satisfy their needs," Engler said. "The nice thing is if they don't want to establish a permanent capability, which costs a lot of money, they can come in and set up their ground support equipment, do their launch, and then leave. They can use us to support however much or however little they need."
Engler couldn't comment on exact companies interested in 48 and the depth of ongoing negotiations. He also couldn't discuss cost, but did say if there's enough demand, one or more companies could use the existing plans and pay to build a second pad at 48 that would mirror the first.
Assuming full use and the construction of a second pad, the new complex could be rated to host up to 104 launches a year, or two per week. Engler noted, however, that the number was more of a maximum-use scenario and likely wouldn't reflect reality.
The construction of more pads at the Eastern Range and the takeover of several by private companies paints a local picture that mirrors much of spaceflight today: slowly gaining traction on the commercial front and seeing more investment from private entities. This comes after the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, at which time even SpaceX hadn't secured pad 39A yet.
"For us, the fact that 48 is going to become a reality at the end of the year helps continue to diversify the spaceport.
We will have rockets that fly the smallest payloads to super-heavy launchers – either with SpaceX or SLS or Vulcan – and be able to get a full range of payloads off the ground here at Kennedy Space Center," Engler said.
"We're in full stride right now and looking to continue to grow."
This story originally appeared on FloridaToday.com