Last month, the Space Force had to manage a traffic jam on the Eastern Range for launches it operates in Florida. Three rockets were vying for takeoff opportunities amidst bad weather and a number of problems with ground support equipment.
The largest of the rockets, a Delta IV Heavy booster, carried the most valuable payload, a satellite classified by the National Reconnaissance Office that is 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 side of the Air Force fence, which is operated by the US Space Force’s 45th Space Wing. The second SpaceX rocket, carrying 60 Starlink satellites, was located on the side of the NASA fence at the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex-39A.
Having three rockets on the launch pads made tough decisions. Who should have priority for the launch? And how many chances should military missions have before commercial launch has a chance? And is there a better way to manage launch distances in the 21st century now that more and more commercial rockets are arriving in U.S. ports?
The US Space Force is considering all of these questions as it takes control of space-related air force assets. One of the initiatives led by John William “Jay” Raymond, the head of space operations for the Space Force, is the “Gamma of the future”. And one of the ideas the Space Force is considering to increase access to space is quite radical: to merge its historic Cape Canaveral facility with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center under a single space 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 U.S. military plans to publish a letter soon setting a Inter-agency process to examine some sort of national spaceport authority.
“How do you get to such an airport facility where we have an airport and military base runway side by side with the commercial runway and airport?” Burt said, addressing some of the challenges planners face. “How can we get to that same thing in the spaceport? I think together that’s what we’ll have to work on cooperatively.”
A couple of forces seem to be at play here. First, the Space Force acknowledges that it is spending a lot of money on roads and other infrastructure in Cape Canaveral and its other major spaceport, Vandenberg Air Base in California. He has also managed 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 a core function of the military.
At the same time, the Space Force is becoming increasingly enthusiastic about the innovation and agility of the commercial launch industry. On reusing SpaceX rockets, Burt said, “This is an absolutely incredible feat, and it’s always amazing to see the rockets come back to the pad and see them being reused. It was a great cost-cutting and saving technique.” The Space Force would like to support the commercial space sector by facilitating their access to the range.
An analogy under discussion is the transfer of Domestic 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 investment to modernize airports for growing commercial needs. Many questions remain about who will operate a combined spaceport in Florida, who would determine which missions are prioritized and so on. They would all be subject to negotiation and everything could end in nothing.
What about you, NASA?
But clearly, change is possible. The main goal of the Space Force is to carry out its mission, which includes entering space quickly and reliably. If this means, as it has in the past, that the military must own and manage every aspect of a launch site, it will. But what the Space Force and Burt have signaled to the broader space community is that if there is a better and more efficient way to do it that cuts red tape for emerging commercial players, they are willing to listen.
Would NASA also be willing to listen? Space agency administrator Jim Bridenstine said yes.
“I am happy to see great ideas proposed 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 commitment. For now, NASA will continue to focus on improving the efficiencies and capabilities of la 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 Florida spaceport player 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 looking to launch out of Florida.
“We know it will be a difficult and complex negotiation to achieve the simplicity of governance that all parties need to thrive,” Ketcham said. “The sooner the dialogue can begin, the better.”