By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - The seaside Florida launchpad from which astronauts once blasted off for the moon comes back to life this weekend thanks to the commercial space venture founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp is preparing for liftoff at 10:01 a.m. EST (1501 GMT) on Saturday from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which was the starting point for 82 space shuttle missions. A backup opportunity is at 9:38 a.m. EST (1438 GMT) on Sunday.
The launchpad, originally built for the 1960s-era Apollo moon program, has not been used since the final space shuttle blasted off in July 2011. NASA leased the pad to SpaceX, as Musk's company is known, in 2014.
"We are honored to be allowed to use it," Musk said in a tweet noting its historic significance.
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The nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station pad where SpaceX had been launching its Falcon 9 rockets was damaged during a fueling accident in September. The company expects to return the pad to service later this year after repairs.
For its Kennedy Space Center debut, SpaceX will launch a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station for NASA, followed by several commercial satellite flights through the spring. The company is owned and operated by Musk, who also is chief executive of Tesla Inc, and has a backlog of more than 70 missions worth more than $10 billion.
Within about two years, SpaceX expects to add human spaceflight to its launch services. NASA, the U.S. space agency, has hired SpaceX and Boeing Co to ferry astronauts to the space station, breaking a Russian monopoly in effect since the shuttles were retired.
For human spaceflight, SpaceX will need to build up 39A’s launch tower and hang a new walkway so astronauts can access the Crew Dragon spaceship, said Stephen Payne, NASA’s launch integration manager for the Commercial Crew program.
“It’s kind of neat to go outside and look at the pad changing and see how what was once the future is becoming the present,” Payne said in an interview.
The privately owned firm has not said how much it spent to refurbish the complex. Its transformation is the most visible of dozens of changes at Kennedy Space Center since the end of the shuttle program.
Boeing has taken over all three of the orbiter processing hangers, including one for its CST-100 Starliner commercial space taxi.
Just beyond the center’s gates, Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is building a factory to manufacture its New Glenn rockets, which will fly satellites and eventually people from a new nearby launchpad.
NASA is keeping the second shuttle launchpad, 39B, and the massive Vehicle Assembly Building for its own crewed Orion spaceships and heavy-lift Space Launch System rockets.
“In the entire history of human spaceflight, there have only been three countries that have ever flown in space, and here we're going to have four separate and distinct programs at the center,” said Kennedy Space Center planning director Tom Engler.
“It’s just amazing when you think about it,” he said.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Tom Brown)