Dr. Greg Autry is a professor of Space Leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University.
Bryce Kennedy is a space law attorney and president of the Association of Commercial Space Professionals.
In a recent article, “Cape Congestion: World’s busiest spaceport stretched to its limits” (Jeff Foust, March 24), SpaceNews wrote about various factors impacting Cape Canaveral and U.S. spaceports in general. There is no doubt that the commercial launch has experienced phenomenal growth over the last decade. The number of orbital-capable launch firms has leaped from a couple to more than a dozen, and the cadence of U.S. orbital launches has moved from monthly to weekly, with this trend accelerating upward on a non-linear curve. That is good news for satellite operators, the broader commercial space industry, and the U.S. government. NASA, NRO, and Space Force can do more for less in a highly competitive market. However, as multiple new rockets move towards testing and some to operations, America’s limited number of coastal spaceports have become the choke point. We must increase the productivity of our existing launch sites in a non-linear fashion to keep up.
Firstly, getting more out of less will require significant upgrades to our aging spaceport infrastructure, particularly at the Cape. These spaceports require upgraded pads, increased electrical power, better roads, and enhanced logistics for an expanding volume and variety of fuels, LOX, and other consumables. To capture the value that commercial launch promises, will require billions of dollars in investment. While Jeff Bezos can simply drop a billion dollars into rebuilding Launch Complex 36 for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, that is not an option for most firms looking to utilize the Cape today and into the future.
Secondly, simply upgrading dedicated launch pads will not suffice. Currently, the level of launch activity at the Cape is manageable. However, as Foust points out, Cape Canaveral has run out of physical space. It can no longer accommodate the demand for dedicated facilities by launch providers. Any remaining developable acres are limited, and environmental impact must be considered. This includes a vital wildlife refuge that has long served as a buffer for both the NASA and the Space Force launch ranges. In short, spaceports must maximize the utilization of their existing resources to handle increased launches.
The third challenge is improving coordination between commercial operators and governmental agencies. In one example from the Space News piece, we hear of delays associated with the Artemis 1 launch postponing facilities maintenance and compelling SpaceX to secure its own gaseous nitrogen for a national security launch. This incident highlights the need for better planning, communication, collaboration, and evolution in commercial space policies and regulations.
Seeing the significance of all this, executive students in the Masters of Global Management in Space Leadership, Business, and Policy at the Thunderbird School, Arizona State University, recently took on this challenge. The Thunderbird cohort assessed limitations to and opportunities for U.S. spaceport success at a cadence of 300 launches per year based on the following meta-questions:
• What is the best ownership model for major U.S. commercial spaceports? Is it a continuation of federally owned and commercially supported, or is it like other multimodal methods characterized by low federal ownership, high state/local ownership, and high commercial operations? Is there a third option?
• Assuming federal ownership, what critical investments (policy, financial, technology, and design) must the Space Force and industry make to (a) increase launch capacity; (b) increase spaceport resiliency and diversity; and (c) maintain/exceed current safety and environmental performance?
• Assuming transition, what does a transition roadmap look like? What investments must occur and demonstrate success for Space Force to end primary responsibility for the U.S.’s largest and busiest commercial spaceports?
The results and findings shaped several transformative opportunities, identifying several ideas worth additional exploration:
• Federal law and policy for spaceport licensing, operations, environmental compliance, and safety require simplification and unity of effort. With this, the local population’s opinion and political buy-in for spaceports and spaceport expansion are critical.
• Federally backed commercial spaceports require a financial model that enables bond issuances for installation modernization and the ability to self-sustain based on service fees. The establishment of a federal corporation is a means to do this.
• Setting basic standards for launch commodity delivery, handling, and launcher interfaces will introduce spaceport operations efficiencies. For this, consider the establishment of a Launch Complex “X” (LC-X) for industry and government to share in standards development. Cape Canaveral may be an ideal location for LC-X.
• Expansion of the nationwide space workforce ecosystem and consideration of socio-economic growth pressures in the Cape Canaveral community are prerequisites for the launch cadence and time horizon proposed by the Space Force.
• The unutilized and rarely visited pads currently commemorating the triumph of the Mercury program and the tragedy of Apollo 1 should be repurposed into test sites for multi-tenant launch operations. Those markers and artifacts should be relocated to an interpretive center, outside the gates, where the taxpayers can visit and learn more about the Space Force as well.
Our choices now have far-reaching implications for our national security and global peace and will determine the economic prosperity of future generations. The United States must invest heavily in upgrading launch site infrastructure to support a commercial ecosystem fostering innovation. Our nation must reduce uncompetitive regulatory barriers, accelerate civil and military processes, and commit to transforming our unique spaceports assets into hubs of American ingenuity. This requires disruptive thinking and risk-taking uncommon in the military. executing in the race to maintain America’s space dominance. We believe the United States Space Force has arrived at the right time to meet this challenge.