The Looming Spaceport Bottleneck
Nowhere to go but up
Today I’m covering a topic about which I am biased. The reason I’m biased is that a friend of mine is working to address this problem. I waited for some time to write this article, because I wanted to make sure that the topic was of enough relevance to the industry that I wasn’t only highlighting it due to my closeness. I think that time is now.
The problem I’m referring to is the “spaceport bottleneck”, or more specifically the painful lack of launchpads and spaceports in the United States.
Why Is There a Bottleneck?
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a rapid rise in the number of satellites in space.
This growth has created a drastic increase in demand for launch. That has translated to an increase of new rocket companies and launch vehicles seeking to meet that demand. A key part of the value chain that has been painfully stagnant though is the physical locations from which you can launch those rockets to space, AKA spaceports.
The limited expansion of new spaceports has not been for lack of trying. There have been over a dozen attempts to add new orbital spaceports in the United States, including Spaceport Camden, the Colorado Air and Spaceport, Spaceport Michigan, a spaceport on the Big Island of Hawaii, Shiloh Spaceport, and others. However, none have overcome the infrastructure, community, and regulatory hurdles required to offer orbital launch. This was a theoretical problem for some time, but in the last twelve months, we’ve seen with increasing urgency the Space Force express how spaceport congestion is becoming a burden.
In a March 23rd SpaceNews article, Colonel James Horne, the deputy director of launch and range operations for the Space Force’s Space Systems Command was quoted as saying “I’ve been in the launch business for 18 years and I’ve never seen this kind of activity. Congestion is becoming a huge challenge for us. All of our mechanisms that we use to manage this business area are starting to show strains.”
View of Cape Canaveral in 1964. Source: NASA
Even more recently, Major General Purdy stated “The Eastern Range is almost done doing everything it can do. We’re not prepared or manned to support launch rates of 90,” which is the current estimated launch numbers in 2023 for spaceports on the east coast of the US. He added, “I project we’re going to be in the multiple hundreds here on a couple years.”
So, launch rates are expected to double or triple in the next few years, but spaceports are already tapped out in capacity. In addition, as far as I can tell no one has a viable plan for building more spaceports. Well, now you know why I’ve become convinced that this could be a significant long-term pain point for the industry.
This article will dive deeper into this problem, covering the below topics:
What constitutes a spaceport?
Why is it so hard to build a new one?
Who has tried to build spaceports
What other options do we have?
Now lets get started…
What Constitutes a Spaceport
A spaceport is a site for launching or receiving spacecraft, meaning its value is not in just in supporting launch services, but reentry services as well. The primary regulatory body for governing spaceports is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which in the United States is responsible for awarding Spaceport Licenses under the Part 420 regulation, titled Launch Site Operator License. The Part 420 regulation can be found here.
For clarification, this regulation is entirely separate from that which covers the launch vehicles themselves, which is addressed in the Part 450 regulation for receiving a Launch Vehicle Operator License.
As of the time of this writing, there are five spaceports in the United States (four if you group together the two sites located on Cape Canaveral) from which there are regular launch operations to orbit. These are:
Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS)- operated by the US Space Force
Kennedy Space Center- operated by NASA and located adjacent to CCSFS
Vandenberg Space Force Base- operated by the US Space Force
Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS)- operated by the state of Virginia on land owned by NASA)
Pacific Spaceport Complex (PCS)-operated by the state of Alaska
Why Is It So Hard To Build A New Spaceport In the US?
Knowing that the United States has a lack of supply for spaceports, the simple conclusion is then that we should just build more. So what does that involve? Well, first it’s important to understand that, due to the risk of a launch vehicle failure, the FAA has historically not approved launch flight trajectories that travel above populated land for at least a couple thousand miles downrange of the launch site. That is why, for example, SpaceX’s test launch site out of Boca Chica in the Gulf of Mexico is limited to a single launch azimuth that threads the needle between Florida and Cuba. Which is why SpaceX is building a second Starship launch site at Cape Canaveral. As a result, any US orbital launch site that expects to launch repeatedly and cost-effectively must be on the Pacific or Atlantic coasts
Beyond that, noise impacts and risks of damage from vehicle failure mean that any spaceport would likely need to include not only the launch pad itself, but at least 1,000 acres of land (approximately 1.5 square miles) surrounding the actual launch pad to provide ample buffer to other property owners. For example, the smallest of the existing US spaceports, MARS and PCS, are approximately 6,500 acres and 3,700 acres respectively. So just to kick things off, you’re talking about acquiring a massive amount of US coastal land, some of the world’s most valuable real estate. That purchase alone would likely cost over $250M given that the cost for coastal land in the US can easily run you $200,000-$500,000 per acre.
In addition, even having acquired the land, the US is a highly litigious nation and there is ample opportunity for nearby homeowners or environmental groups to sue spaceport developers under claims of safety hazards, property value impacts, or environmental impacts. The legal costs of fighting that battle would likely be in the tens of millions of dollars. This has been the case in the past few years for SpaceX at Boca Chica.
Failed Attempts to Build Spaceports
Despite the uphill nature of the challenge, many have tried to develop new orbital-capable spaceports in the United States. In my opinion, the best chance of the last two decades and the most exemplary of the challenges is Spaceport Camden in Camden County, Georgia.
The effort to develop Spaceport Camden began in November 2012, when the Camden County Joint Development Authority voted to "explore developing an aero-spaceport facility" at an Atlantic coastal site to support both horizontal and vertical launch operations.
In 2021, the FAA issued a launch site operator license for Spaceport Camden that enabled launches only at a 100-degree azimuth trajectory. However, in a 2022 referendum by Camden County voters, the project was rejected. The county made an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, arguing that voters did not have the right to override the county’s decisions to develop the spaceport. However, the state supreme court sided with county residents and the county was unable to move forward with an effort to purchase the land. It was reported that the county had spent approximately $12M in its efforts to develop the spaceport, which had not yet included what it would have cost to acquire the land if the project had moved forward.
Projected Zoning for Camden Spaceport. Source: Spaceport Camden Launch Site Operator Application with FAA
When you look at the example of Spaceport Camden and other attempts to develop coastal orbital spaceports, it becomes apparent just how difficult the prospect appears. That is not merely my own opinion, here are the perspectives of others that are close to the problem:
There will never be a new spaceport built in the US capable of heavy lift or any kind of operationally useful tempo. We are stuck with Canaveral, Wallops, and Vandenberg. If Boca Chica is the best even SpaceX could do, our future lies offshore.
— Michael Mealling (@mmealling)
Apr 23, 2023
@StephenFleming NIMBY was a major issue when I was working on the Shiloh spaceport project in Florida, right in the Space Coast area (just north of Brevard County). Even in places where the residents understand space don’t necessarily want more launch sites.
— Laura Seward Forczyk 🌙💫🚀 (@LauraForczyk)
Jun 20, 2023
@mmealling Even building out the original Cape expansion plan (further to the north, completing or replacing the planned LC-39C, and beyond), proved to be too much for the modern regulatory climate:
— Jeff Greason (@JeffGreason)
Apr 23, 2023
What About Going Overseas?
An additional option might be US launch companies using overseas spaceports. However, those options are limited and seemingly less attractive than existing US options. There are a number of spaceport projects in early development in the United Kingdom, including Spaceport Cornwall, Spaceport Shetland, and Sutherland Spaceport. While these may be useful for a domestic European small launch provider, shipping an entire launch vehicle across the Atlantic from manufacturing facilities in the US adds significant costs to the launch process. With launch margins already being tight, additional costs can force launch costs to be unprofitable.
Furthermore, it’s unclear if those spaceports would overcome any of the regulatory challenges that are already impacting US launch sites. When Virgin Orbit launched out of Spaceport Cornwall in January 2023, many of the delays in getting to first launch were regulatory in nature. Both Virgin Orbit and Virgin Orbit’s satellite payloads expressed this frustration openly. A director at Space Forge, a satellite on the Virgin Orbit launch discussed the experience with the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, saying "The CAA is taking a different approach to risk, and a bit to process and timing as well… I think unless there is, without wanting to be too dramatic, a seismic change in that approach, the UK is not going to be competitive from a launch perspective." Space Forge’s CEO Joshua Western further stated "Quite frankly it costs us more to license our satellite for launch than it did to launch it."
What Other Options Do US Launchers Have?
So what does that leave? Well if you believe that there’s no path to increasing land-based spaceports in the US, then an alternative option is to explore launching offshore.
Sea-based launch has been leveraged previously and is in active use today. In 1995 a company named Sea Launch was formed to offer offshore launch pad platforms. The organization was a consortium of four companies based in Norway, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States, being primarily managed by Boeing. Between 1999 and 2014, 36 launches were conducted from Sea Launch platforms. Due to high platform costs and geopolitical challenges resulting from the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, the consortium became untenable and Sea Launch is no longer in operation.
Sea Launch platform. Image courtesy: spacenews.com
China is experiencing its own spaceport bottleneck with the proliferation of domestic rocket companies and has begun leveraging offshore launch as well. China currently operates three offshore launch vessels.
Launch of a Long March-11 on an offshore platform. Source: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab
In addition, South Korea has conducted suborbital launches from offshore launch platforms.
Offshore launch of a South Korean suborbital rocket Source: https://youtu.be/BSyPsGe1aiY
SpaceX has also repeatedly expressed plans for eventually moving Starship launches offshore, including Elon Musk stating so in a 2019 tweet:
@TJ_Cooney That said, most Starship spaceports will probably need to be ~20 miles / 30km offshore for acceptable noise levels, especially for frequent daily flights, as would occur for point to point flights on Earth
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk)
Nov 4, 2019
The company purchased two oil rigs as Starship launch platforms. However, SpaceX eventually sold them, stating that they were the wrong types of platforms but that they would eventually return to offshore launch once the Starship vehicle was flying regularly.
Gwynne Shotwell told reporters last week that SpaceX sold the rigs; "they were not the right platform." Still interested in sea-based launch platforms, but the company wants to start flying Starship first and understand it before proceeding.
— Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust)
Feb 14, 2023
So is offshore launch the answer to the US’s spaceport needs? I don’t know for sure, but I struggle to see another option unless there is a radical change to the regulation around land-based spaceports. Given the historical rate of regulatory change, as well as the Space Force expectation of at least 200 launches in just a couple more years, I don’t see how you avoid a painful bottleneck without moving some portion of launches offshore. Looking even further to the future, if the industry hopes to scale to upwards of 500 or even 1,000 launches per year in the next decade or two, it seems impossible for the existing spaceports, already at capacity, to support continued long-term launch growth.
A Need for A Domestic Commercial Spaceport
Beyond even this practical necessity for scaled spaceports, I think there is also an ideological argument for the United States having its own commercial spaceport. All of the current orbital-capable US spaceports are run by governments and governments have different incentives and priorities than that commercial industry.
We’re already seeing that play out in the spaceport world. There is only one US launch company that actually gets to choose between using a commercial spaceport and a government spaceport. Rocket Lab operates its own private, commercial spaceport in Mahia, New Zealand while now also having access to a pad at MARS in Virginia. In January 2023, Rocket Lab conducted its first launch out of MARS and a second one from that site in March 2023. Since then, Rocket Lab has conducted six more launches, all out of Mahia, and has over 10 more upcoming launches, all scheduled out of Mahia. That suggests to me a strong preference to using their own commercial spaceport, despite having initiated access to a government spaceport as well.
The CEO of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck, himself has emphasized this preference. In speaking about their experience at Mahia, he has said “We can turn stuff around quickly and be very commercial.” During delays from range issues leading up to their first launch at MARS, Beck stated that the issues, “make you appreciate owning your own range where you’re in control of all of this and you’re dealing with one regulator directly.”
That’s great for Rocket Lab, but all the other US launchers are unlikely to have an international government offer exclusive use of coastal land, which the New Zealand government did for Rocket Lab. US rocket companies are stuck with the five government-run spaceports we’ve got. Unless we figure out some way of adding a commercial spaceport in the US, that’s going to remain the case.
Taking It Back to the Top
This brings me back to the very beginning of this newsletter, where I said that I was biased on this topic. The reason is that a friend of mine, Tom Marotta, has been working on this issue since February 2022. I met Tom in 2021, when he was the Launch Licensing Lead at the rocket company Astra Space. At Astra, he had the role of standing up their launch pad at Cape Canaveral, which he did in record time of 8 months. That was possible because, prior to Astra, Tom worked in the FAA’s office of Commercial Space Transportation, where he wrote the Part 450 regulation that covers launch vehicle licensing. All this is to say that I respect Tom’s opinion on this topic.
In February 2022, Tom started The Spaceport Company in an effort to address this pain point. After trying in vain to find any US coastal land that could be converted to a new commercial spaceport, he turned to offshore launch. I’m not going to turn this article into a full marketing piece for The Spaceport Company, I think that’d be a bit shameless of me. Instead, I’ll just say that I don’t really see a scalable solution to the spaceport bottleneck other than offshore launch (besides significant regulatory change). If you want to learn more about The Spaceport Company you can bug Tom yourself at [email protected] and here’s a recent offshore demo showing what they’re up to.
Wrapping It Up
The rumblings regarding spaceport congestion have been rising for the last 12 months, which is increasing the discussion around the topic. Payload Space recently published an Op-Ed on the topic, in which the author, Space Force Captain Nicholas Francoeur, emphasized the national security vulnerabilities of limited spaceport supply. In the piece, Francoeur asks “What happens if the largest US-based launch centers are indefinitely disrupted?”
I really don’t know what the solution to spaceport congestion is going to look like, there are currently no silver bullets as far as I can tell. Ultimately, we’re all in this boat together, range delays and rising launch costs due to congestion impact every stakeholder in this industry. You can’t get to space without going through a spaceport. Hopefully, we figure something out, because if we’re lucky and the industry continues to grow, this issue isn’t going away anytime soon.