Our obsession with a certain spaceport on the Texas coast may come to an end if SpaceX’s Starship finally makes its second attempt at an orbital flight this month. But our long national spaceport nightmare is just beginning.
The number of commercial orbital rocket launches in the US is growing, from just 12 in 2012 to 84 in 2022; there have already been 92 launches this year. Most of those are SpaceX rockets, and the company says it plans to fly even more often in 2023. We are also expected to see new large rockets debut, including ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn. Rocket Lab is launching small rockets, and a handful of likely competitors—including Relativity Space, Firefly, and ABL Space Systems—are pushing to join them.
But there are really just three places to head to if one wants to get into orbit from a US point of origin: Cape Canaveral in Florida (60 launches in 2023), Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (24 launches in 2023), and Wallops Island in Virginia (4 launches in 2023). Notably, these are all federal government facilities where private companies are tenants or service providers, and they are being stretched to capacity.
There is also SpaceX’s Boca Chica spaceport in Texas, where the Starship orbital flight tests take place. We’ve covered SpaceX’s difficult path to winning permission to launch at Boca Chica, and whether you see the company’s struggles as stemming from regulatory overreach or a lack of savvy among the firm’s executives, the US probably can’t wait seven years or more for a new spaceport.
“Even the federal government couldn’t build a new Vandenberg,” says Tom Marotta, the CEO of The Spaceport Company, a startup that wants to solve the problem by launching rockets from ships at sea.
Spaceports need to be situated far from people and generally with flight paths over the ocean, in case something goes wrong; it also helps to be close to the equator to benefit from Earth’s rotation. Today, getting 100 square miles of coastal land in the US to build Cape Canaveral 2 would be hugely expensive, and eminent domain enormously controversial. Marotta notes that the government is spending $1.3 billion just to cover deferred maintenance at the Cape and Vandenberg. Even private efforts are challenging; Rocket Lab operates a private spaceport in New Zealand that is a major advantage for the company, but also takes a lot of work to see through the regulatory requirements, according to CEO Peter Beck.
Before starting his new company, Marotta worked at the Federal Aviation Administration, helping develop the regulations that govern US rockets, and then at Astra, a small rocket startup. There, he was frustrated by the challenge of simply finding a place to launch Astra’s rocket. The company started off launching from a spaceport in Alaska that was about 2,000 miles from its headquarters in San Francisco’s Bay Area.
“I remember thinking to myself at Astra, ‘Gosh, it would be great to put the rocket on a truck, go on a barge, go out to sea, and just launch it,’” he says.
This isn’t an original idea, of course: Most notably, Sea Launch’s floating launch platform had 32 successful orbital flights between 1999 and 2014. The firm ultimately went bankrupt, but that was in part because of a complex multinational ownership structure and an over-ambitious design that didn’t have enough demand to support it. Marotta hired Steve Thelin, a former Sea Launch executive, to ensure The Spaceport Company didn’t make the same mistakes. Now, they’re building a smaller, more cost-conscious vehicle for smaller rockets, at a time when the satellite launch market is significantly larger.
And companies making big rockets like SpaceX and Blue Origin already use, or plan to deploy, seagoing vessels to recover reusable rocket boosters; SpaceX has also discussed plans to launch Starship at sea in the future.
Marotta’s current vision is a ship that can launch rockets that carry up to a metric ton of payload to orbit, like those being developed by Firefly and Phantom Space. Operating 12 miles off the coast, the company’s spaceports should have an easier time negotiating regulations designed to limit the impact of launches on the environment and surrounding communities.
Earlier this year, the company launched four suborbital rockets from a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico to demonstrate the operational and regulatory procedures it will need to scale up, and was awarded a $1.5 million contract for development work by the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit. Now, the company is working to win additional contracts, sign up rocket companies, and raise the money needed to build its first floating spaceport, with an initial goal of launching 12 to 18 times a year. Marotta says he can offer the lowest per-launch range fee in the industry to companies that commit to his spaceport.
The big time vision, however, is to develop a model floating spaceport that can be built again and again, and deployed around the world for space launches and landings. Marotta’s equivalent of SpaceX’s “city on Mars” is a future where point-to-point suborbital spaceflight is a major transportation category. That is likely decades away, but already the US Air Force and SpaceX are working through the challenges to make that transit a possibility, while startups like New Frontier Aerospace tinker with novel vehicles designed to enable 30-minute trips across the planet.
First things first, however: The Spaceport company has to get its feet wet.
Speaking of Sea Launch, here’s a picture of its floating platform transiting the Suez Canal in 1998. The converted North Sea oil rig is headed to its home port in California after being modified in Russia. You don’t see that every day!
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Virgin Galactic cuts staff. The space tourism firm (NYSE:SPCE) is reducing expenses with layoffs and pausing flights next year as management attempts to deal with the company’s central problem: It can’t make enough money flying passengers on its current vehicles, so it needs to build an expensive fleet of new rocket planes by 2026.
Starlink is a $9 billion business. SpaceX’s satellite internet service could see revenue as large as $15 billion in 2024, according to Bloomberg sources, who also confirmed reports that the company will see about $3 billion in operating profits this year.
Rocket Lab aims to fly before the end of the month. The firm reported $68 million in revenue last quarter, boosted by its division that makes spacecraft and their components.
Europe pays for SpaceX competitor. Germany, France, and Italy will provide €340 million ($365 million) in annual financing plus additional launch business to Arianespace in an effort to jumpstart the company’s delayed Ariane 6 rocket. Though SpaceX has benefited enormously from US government funding and expertise, it’s not clear that Arianespace will bring SpaceX’s focus on execution to government partnerships—more hope may be found in European plans to put future launches up for competitive bidding.
More air travel will benefit satellite telecoms. With air travel nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, companies providing connectivity to airlines have big opportunities but also face the perils of over-capacity, as Panasonic in-flight connectivity VP John Wade explains in this interesting interview.
US law restricts satellite imagery of Israel. As the world tries to track the conflict in Gaza, US satellite companies can’t sell their highest-resolution imagery because of a unique restriction imposed by federal regulators.
Last week: The two giants of space business hosted a Moon-centric field trip.
Last year: What we can learn from Elon Musk’s adventures in social media.
This was issue 202 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your spaceport solutions, ocean-going and otherwise, tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.
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