There is no longer any doubt about the projected impact of the space transportation industry on our lives. Over the course of the last decade, the United States — and many other countries — have experienced rapid growth of commercial space activities in areas of space tourism, earth observation, global communications, medical research, science, and engineering.
The establishment of licensed spaceports was not a topic that garnered much consideration ten years ago, but today there are 21 active spaceports in the U.S. that can be used for commercial space activities, licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A number of federal launch and reentry ranges, state/locally owned spaceports, and privately-owned spaceports are conducting regular and more frequent space launch activities at an ever-increasing rate (see chart at center right).
Perhaps the best-known spaceport is NASA’s federal public facility known as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Just a few weeks ago, Elon Musk’s SpaceX company flawlessly launched a Falcon 9 rocket from there, with four diverse astronauts — including a Russian cosmonaut — to the International Space Station (ISS). It was the fifth operational human spaceflight mission to the ISS conducted by a commercial company since NASA retired its Space Shuttle Program in 2011. Two days later, SpaceX launched yet another rocket with two Intelsat satellites from another well-known federal spaceport — Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
And then there is actor William Shatner — “Captain Kirk” from Star Trek — who became the oldest person to go in space aboard Blue Origin’s hot-water-heater-shaped NS-18 spacecraft last year. That joy ride began and ended at Launch Site One in West Texas, one of two private spaceports in the U.S. And we haven’t even talked about Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle, which takes off by using traditional aircraft from the long runways at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
While companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX get the attention, it is the network of spaceports that serves as a critical pillar of the industry. While these facilities see little profit from launching $50 million satellites, spaceports serve as powerful drivers for local economies, providing value in the same way a major airport does today.
What is a Spaceport, Anyway ?
In general terms, a spaceport is a site for launching or receiving spacecraft, like a seaport for ships or an airport for aircraft. There is no generally accepted definition for the term “spaceport.” Spaceports are not all the same, with many having very different kinds of operations. For example, a spaceport can serve solely as a rocket launch site that contains one or more launch pads. Known as a “vertical” spaceport, these facilities are typically surrounded by a large safety area – called a “range” — over which launched rockets are expected to fly, and within which some components of the rockets may land. A spaceport may also include runways for takeoff and landing of aircraft to support spaceport operations — like Spaceport America — to enable support of winged launch vehicles. These facilities are known as “horizontal” spaceports. Some spaceports have both vertical and horizontal capabilities.
As the capability of the commercial space industry expands, regulators like the FAA face new challenges to maintain public safety while enabling industry growth. Launch and launch site authority was originally granted to the FAA in 1984 for U.S. operators and spaceports. And while the FAA does not yet certify the design of commercial launch or reentry vehicles, the agency licenses the operation of the launch or reentry vehicles for public safety. Since 1989, the FAA has licensed nearly 500 commercial space launches and more than 30 commercial space reentries.
The FAA also licenses the operation of spaceports that are non-federal launch sites.
Launch Site Licensing
An applicant for an FAA-issued spaceport license must meet all safety, environmental, policy and risk requirements. This site license does not authorize any single launch; for launches to occur, a commercial space company must obtain an FAA launch operator license by meeting other regulatory requirements.
The FAA does not review the business case for a proposed spaceport, nor the justification for the specific location. However, there are plenty of hoops to jump through to obtain a license for a spaceport, with safety being at the top of the list. Here are four major areas described in FAA rules for a spaceport “applicant” to consider:
• Environmental impact – the applicant must prepare an “Environmental Assessment” or “Impact Statement.” These types of assessments can be very costly and time-consuming.
• Location – the proposed location of the spaceport must ensure that the chance of a single human casualty during a launch does not exceed one in 10,000. More on this later.
• Explosions – The applicant must submit a site plan that identifies where all explosive materials will be placed, while ensuring that their placement is separated from public areas and traffic routes in accordance with a sliding scale of explosive material weight and type versus separation distances.
• Launch Debris Path – The applicant must depict plans to ensure that damage and/or injuries from any debris shed from a malfunction or catastrophic failure is minimized.
Successfully navigating these areas of the licensing process can be very time-consuming, taking several years.
FAA Office of Spaceports
Recognizing that spaceports play a critical role in the commercial space industry, Congress established the Office of Spaceports in the FAA Authorization Act of 2018. The Act stated: “A robust network of space transportation infrastructure, including spaceports, is vital to the growth of the domestic space industry and America’s competitiveness and access to space.” The FAA Office of Spaceports is responsible for development of policies that promote infrastructure improvements, strengthen the competitiveness of U.S. spaceports, support launch and reentry site licensing activities, and provide technical assistance and guidance to existing and proposed new spaceports.
“None of this is any small feat,” said Pam Underwood, the director of the office, during a meeting of the Global Spaceport Alliance. “These are detailed activities that we take very seriously.” Underwood’s office also chairs the newly created National Spaceport Interagency Working Group (NSIWG) — a dedicated team of experts from multiple federal government and state agencies, industry, and academia — to leverage the full network of spaceports to the benefit of the space transportation industry.The office is also working to modernize the regulation of launch and reentry sites, and coordinate those regulations with those under development in other nations.
An International Affair
Coordination of international commercial space regulations is a time-consuming task for Underwood’s office. That’s because a total of 64 licensed — or soon-to-be licensed — spaceports currently exist across 20 nations on our planet, with many more expressing interest in establishing such a facility. The U.S. leads the world with 14 licensed spaceports, followed by the United Kingdom (U.K.) with seven, Russia with five, and China and Australia each with four. Spain, India, North Korea, Japan, and New Zealand each have two spaceports. Ten other countries — such as Norway, Brazil, and Canada — each have one spaceport.
Despite where a U.S. operator initiates a commercial space launch or reentry — such as from a spaceport in Scotland, for example — a license from the FAA for the operation is required. This is in addition to host country’s regulations and licensing for the operation and the spaceport. Typically, a nation’s civil aviation authority is in charge of the licensing. For example, in the United Kingdom, the U.K Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has a similar process of licensing commercial space launches and spaceports as the FAA process.
One such spaceport in the SaxaVord Spaceport, located in northern Scotland on the Shetland Islands in the village of Unst. The private spaceport was conceived five years ago when a report commissioned by the U.K. Space Agency had singled out SaxaVord as the preferred site for satellite launches. SaxaVord began with a staff of five people in 2017, growing to nearly 50 today. Construction of the spaceport began earlier this year and is expected to be completed by the Spring of 2023.
Scott Hammond is the deputy chief executive officer of SaxaVord, and he spoke with Aerospace Tech Review about his spaceport. A former RAF fighter pilot, Hammond is passionate — and patient — when it comes to establishing a successful location for commercial space operators to show their stuff. Two of three planned launch pads are being built now, with a third to be built in 12 months.
“The challenges are all around the CAA regulations,” explained Hammond. He ticked off a punch list of activities: airspace change process…looking at international agreements for splashdown zones…obtaining a marine license…showing that the location is safe.
“Coordination is key,” he said. “It’s all about baby steps.”
Hammond also articulated that four licenses will be required – for the spaceport, the range/airspace, launch vehicle, and satellite — before SaxaVord succeeds in performing what may be the first-ever vertical launch to orbit from British soil. SaxaVord is set to host the U.K .Space Agency’s “Pathfinder” launch, which will be delivered by two U.S. companies in 2023. A rocket manufactured by ABL Space Systems in El Segundo, California, will launch and release a small orbital maneuvering vehicle built by Lockheed Martin which can carry and deploy up to six “6U CubeSats” — satellites that are about the size of a portable microwave oven — optimizing orbital placement for each satellite’s respective mission, whether it be for earth observation, communications, or scientific research.
Location, Location, Location
The geographic positioning of a spaceport is a key consideration for both safety and commercial viability. A spaceport must be built as far as possible away from major population centers in order to mitigate risk to bystanders should a rocket experience a catastrophic failure. Many spaceports with launch sites are built close to large bodies of water to ensure that no components are shed over populated areas. A spaceport site should also be large enough to prevent death, injury, or damage to adjacent launch pads in the event a vehicle explodes.
Some spaceports use adjacent restricted, remote airspace as a competitive advantage, such as Spaceport America in New Mexico, which is located on large swaths of land below the Department of Defense’s restricted airspace at White Sands missile range.
“You can’t put a launch site anywhere” Hammond explained. “Things do go wrong sometimes. You don’t want to overfly any populated areas in case there is a problem.” Because Saxavord is located in the most northern section of the UK it provides these safety features, and also commercial advantages. Spaceports located at high latitudes can provide direct to low-earth orbit trajectories, which means less fuel needed to get to orbit, equating to more payload capability.
“Our site here in the Shetlands is ideal for satellite launches,” Hammond stated. He explained that the spaceport is well-positioned to launch small satellites into Polar and Sun-Synchronous orbits. It provides a safe trajectory for rockets to carry satellites to these orbits, and has no population centers over the launch path. He also explained that the airspace around the spaceport is clear, with no commercial airline or military activity to get in the way of a launch or reentry vehicle. As an added bonus, the site has significant logistical infrastructure and supply chain expertise that was previously built to support the oil and gas industry there.
The Commercial Space Field of Dreams
SaxaVord is one of seven “aspiring” spaceports in the U.K., and it is the only private one. The spaceport no longer needs to advertise its facility like it once did five years ago; it currently has applications for 30 launches. “Seven clients are looking to launch by 2024,” Hammond explained.
There are many more “applicants” for spaceports in the U.S.
The famous quote from the baseball film “Field of Dreams” sums up the mantra of the commercial space industry when it comes to spaceports: “If You Build It, They Will Come.”