Last month, the Space Force had a traffic jam to manage at the Eastern Range for launches it manages in Florida. Three rockets were vying for opportunities to liftoff amid poor weather and a slew of issues with ground support equipment.
In 1964, an overall aerial view of “Missile Row,” Cape Kennedy Air Force Station. The view is looking north, with NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building under construction in the upper left-hand corner.
The largest of the rockets, a Delta IV Heavy booster, carried the most valuable payload—a classified satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office said to cost well north of $1 billion. SpaceX also had two rockets ready to go, one carrying a GPS satellite for the Space Force and another with a purely commercial mission to launch the company’s Starlink satellites.
The first two missions were located on the Air Force side of the fence, which is managed by the US Space Force’s 45th Space Wing. The second SpaceX rocket, carrying 60 Starlink satellites, stood on the NASA side of the fence, at Launch Complex-39A at Kennedy Space Center.
Having three rockets on launch pads made for some difficult decisions. Who should have priority to launch? And how many chances should the military missions get before the commercial launch gets an opportunity? And is there a better way to manage launch ranges in the 21st century now that more and more commercial rockets are coming to US spaceports?
The US Space Force is considering all these questions as it takes control of Air Force assets related to space. One of the initiatives being led by John William “Jay” Raymond, the chief of Space Operations for the Space Force, is the “Range of the Future.” And one of the ideas the Space Force is considering to increase access to space is pretty radical—merging its historic Cape Canaveral facility with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center under a single spaceport authority.
During a meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee last month, the director of operations and communications for the Space Force, Major General DeAnna Burt, said the US military planned to soon issue a letter that would establish an interagency process to look at some sort of national spaceport authority.
“How do we get to a similar airport structure where we have a military base airport and runway sitting side by side with the commercial runway and airport?” Burt said, addressing some of the challenges facing planners. “How do we get to that same thing in the spaceport? I think together that’s what we’re going to have to cooperatively work on.”
A couple of forces seem to be at play here. First, the Space Force recognizes that it is spending a lot of money dealing with roads and other infrastructure at Cape Canaveral and its other major spaceport, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It has also been managing leases for several launch companies, including United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Firefly Aerospace, and Relativity Space, with more on the way. These are not seen as core functions of the military.
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At the same time, the Space Force is becoming increasingly excited about the innovation and agility of the commercial launch sector. On SpaceX reusing rockets, Burt said, “That is absolutely an amazing feat, and it’s always amazing to watch rockets returned back to the pad and to be seeing them being reused. It’s been a great cost cutting and saving technique.” The Space Force would like to support the commercial space sector by easing their access to the range.
One analogy being discussed is the transfer of National and Dulles Airports from the Federal Aviation Administration in 1984 to the new Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. This agency in turn renamed National after President Ronald Reagan and then found private investments to modernize airports for growing commercial demands. Lots of questions remain about who would manage a combined spaceport in Florida, who would determine what missions have priority, and so on. These would all be subject to negotiation, and it may all come to naught.
Et tu, NASA?
But clearly, change is possible. The primary goal of the Space Force is to execute its mission, which includes getting into space quickly and reliably. If that means, as it has done in the past, that the military has to own and operate every facet of a launch site, it will. But what the Space Force and Burt have signaled to the broader space community is that if there’s a better, more efficient way to do this, which cuts red tape for emerging commercial players, they’re willing to listen.
Would NASA be willing to listen as well? The space agency administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said yes.
“I’m glad to see big ideas being proposed such as a potential merger,” he told Ars. “This, and other ambitious concepts for the future should all be given due consideration. However, such a proposed merger would require a great deal of work and effort. For the time being, NASA will continue to focus on enhancing the efficiencies and capabilities at our existing launch facility. Our team at KSC has already done a great job creating a thriving spaceport to serve both NASA and commercial needs.”
Another player at the Florida spaceport is the state’s economic development agency, Space Florida. Dale Ketcham, that group’s vice president of government and external relations, is also interested in streamlining operations for companies seeking to launch from Florida.
“We know it will be a difficult and complex negotiation to achieve the simplicity of governance all parties need to truly thrive,” said Ketcham. “The sooner that dialogue can begin, the better.”