The Space Force is changing the way it thinks about spaceports

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Enlarge / The Morrell Operations Center at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A lot goes into a successful rocket launch. It’s not just reliable engines, computers, and sophisticated guidance algorithms. There’s also the launch pad, and perhaps even more of an afterthought to casual observers, the roads, bridges, pipelines, and electrical infrastructure required to keep a spaceport humming.

Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, commander of the Space Force’s Eastern Range at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, calls this the “non-sexy stuff that we can’t launch without.” Much of the ground infrastructure at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the military’s other launch range, is antiquated and needs upgrades or expansion.

“Things like roads, bridges, even just the entry into the base, the gate, communications infrastructure, power, we’re looking at overhauling and modernizing all of that because we really haven’t done a tech refresh on all of that in a very long time, at least 20 years, if not more,” said Col. James Horne, deputy director for the Space Force’s assured access to space directorate.

Getting a congressional appropriation for new rocket or spacecraft development, research into advanced technology, or military pay raises has generally been easier than securing funds for military construction projects.

“Trying to do all those upgrades on just our annual budget is not possible,” Panzenhagen said earlier his week in a presentation to the National Space Club Florida Committee.

Charging ahead

The Biden administration is requesting $1.3 billion over the next five years to revamp infrastructure at the Space Force’s ranges in Florida and California. According to Panzenhagen, one of the first projects will be an upgrade to the airfield at Cape Canaveral, where the military regularly delivers satellites and other equipment to the launch site.

But this funding won’t be enough for Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg to meet the Space Force’s projected launch demand fully. Last year, there were 72 orbital launch attempts from Florida and 30 launches from California.

“I would anticipate we’re going to do over 100 launches from the Cape this year,” Panzenhagen said. “And that puts a strain on a lot of our workforce, so we are doing process things to try to operate more smartly.”

SpaceX will launch most of these missions, with Falcon 9 launch demand driven by expanding the company’s Starlink broadband network. United Launch Alliance plans as many as 16 rocket launches this year, all from Cape Canaveral, and Blue Origin could launch its first heavy-lift New Glenn rocket from Florida by the end of 2024. SpaceX plans to launch around 50 missions from California next year; Firefly Aerospace could launch a handful of flights there, too.

This long exposure photo shows a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket streaking into space from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A few minutes later, the rocket's side boosters returned to land at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station a few miles away.
Enlarge / This long exposure photo shows a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket streaking into space from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A few minutes later, the rocket’s side boosters returned to land at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station a few miles away.
US Space Force/Joshua Conti

There has been a significant uptick in launch cadence at Cape Canaveral. In 2008, there were only seven launches from the Florida spaceport. Since SpaceX started launching its Falcon 9 rocket in 2010, the launch cadence in Florida has been on a steady rise.

“This is not a hard limit, but I think at the Cape, we could probably push through somewhere on the order of 150 launches per year if we did nothing,” Horne told Ars in a recent interview. “And then probably 75 or so per year from Vandenberg. Everything we’re doing is continuing to improve that ability so that we’re not in the way. So whenever they say they need to go, we say yes.”

The Space Force provides security, weather forecasting, telemetry, and safety oversight services for all launches from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg. The launch ranges in Florida and California are primarily responsible for ensuring the US military has an always-on capability to launch critical national security satellites. But the majority of launches from the military ranges are commercial missions.

Charging more

Commercial launch companies pay fees to the Space Force to reimburse for direct costs related to rocket launches. These cover expenses like weather forecast services, surveillance to ensure airplanes and boats stay out of restricted areas, and range safety support.

“What that typically meant was anything we did that was specifically dedicated to that launch,” Horne said. “The security we provide at the gate, the management of the roads, the water for pad deluge systems, things like that were all paid for out of the normal DOD appropriations, and then everybody used it. We couldn’t apportion those charges to commercial operations.”

This is about to change after legislation passed by Congress in December allows the Space Force to charge indirect fees to commercial providers. “That was a huge deal for us,” Panzenhagen said.

The language in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) caps the amount of indirect fees commercial companies will pay the Space Force. The law limits the indirect fees the Space Force can levy up to 30 percent of what a launch company pays in direct fees, with an annual cap of $5 million.

“Previously, we were only allowed to charge, by law, direct costs to our launch service providers, and now we have the capability to recoup some indirect costs,” Panzenhagen said. “We have made a pact with Congress and our launch service providers. We will be very transparent in our billing.”

The Space Force has reduced staffing inside its range operations center, seen here in 2021, for some rocket launches at Cape Canaveral.
Enlarge / The Space Force has reduced staffing inside its range operations center, seen here in 2021, for some rocket launches at Cape Canaveral.
US Space Force/Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman

Some people in the space industry have likened the new fee paradigm to a “port authority model.” Horne said that’s a good “analog” to what the Space Force is doing with the launch sites in Florida and California. “We’ve changed the nomenclature from calling ourselves a range to calling ourselves a spaceport because we see ourselves more like an airport in the future,” Horne said.

With indirect charging, launch providers flying from the military spaceports will contribute to “what I call a spaceport operating fund,” Horne said. “It would be like how an airport works. The more you use something, the more you contribute to efficient operations at the port.”

The Space Force is not planning to turn over responsibility for operating Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg to an outside entity, according to Horne. He said the Space Force has had “several engagements” with launch companies regarding the new user fees. “The law was after a very close discussion with our industry partners to ensure that whatever we’re doing doesn’t negatively impact the industrial base, but allows all of us to partner together to increase capacity,” Horne said.

Roads need to be repaved or widened across Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg. The Space Force needs to maintain and expand facilities to supply nitrogen, helium, and propellants to different launch pads. Panzenhagen said she’s concerned about a bottleneck in satellite processing facilities at the military’s spaceports, especially as rideshare launches become more common. With dozens of small satellites launching on some rockets, there’s a need for more infrastructure to prepare those payloads for liftoff.

A lack of real estate

The “single most important thing” enabling the ranges’ ability to support so many launches has been autonomous flight termination, Horne said. These mechanisms are designed to destroy a rocket if it veers off course, and previous flight termination system designs required a range safety officer on the ground to send the destruct command. Now, rockets can automatically self-destruct if they detect a major problem that could threaten public safety.

SpaceX has been using automated flight termination systems for several years, and ULA is introducing the new technology with its Vulcan rocket. This has allowed the Space Force to cut the time it needs to reconfigure range systems between launches from about 48 hours to less than three hours, as the military range and SpaceX demonstrated with back-to-back missions last month.

“The flexibility that it gives you that we didn’t have with a human-in-the-loop type system is just incredible,” Horne said. “Now, it’s more about just continuing what we’ve already done in terms of processes that we’re working on to get even more efficient, to reduce the cycle time between launches, airspace restrictions, squeezing those down to the minimum necessary to protect the public, but maximize launch opportunities.”

The Space Force is also leaning on AI and machine learning in new ways, Horne said. Military officials are using new automated processes to look for efficiencies in how the ranges schedule their launch operations. And the Space Force is now permitting launch companies—if they so choose—to provide their own weather monitoring, surveillance, and telemetry capabilities instead of relying on military infrastructure.

One reason the Space Force focuses so much on process improvements is due to the physical limitations on growing launch capacity at Cape Canaveral. Last year, the military allocated three historic launch pads at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to small launch startup companies. Vandenberg has also assigned abandoned launch pads to new users in recent years.

“Largely, at the Cape, we’re at capacity, pretty much,” Horne said. “There are a couple of additional pads that we haven’t allocated yet, but we’re working through that process now.”

An astronaut on the International Space Station took this picture of Cape Canaveral, Florida, in December 2020.
Enlarge / An astronaut on the International Space Station took this picture of Cape Canaveral, Florida, in December 2020.
NASA

Cape Canaveral Space Force Station sits adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, covering more than 150,000 acres of swamp, beaches, and forests on Florida’s east coast. Most of the land is unsuitable for constructing new launch pads or hangars. “There’s not a lot of land that is open for development over what we have already done,” said Burt Summerfield, associate director for management at the Kennedy Space Center.

By 2030, NASA projects 225 launches per year combined at Kennedy and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

At Vandenberg, located on California’s Central Coast northwest of Los Angeles, the Space Force has a little more real estate available for construction. Vandenberg’s geographic position, with the open Pacific Ocean to the west, south, and southeast, is suited for rockets launching satellites into orbits over Earth’s poles. Cape Canaveral is typically used for missions into lower-inclination orbits that are reachable by launching a rocket toward the east.

“We’re looking at how can we develop farther south of Vandenberg and bring the roads, power, and commodities out to that southern portion of Vandenberg,” Horne said. “So we have a little more land available at Vandenberg, but we’re pretty much at capacity at the Cape.”

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