Air Force Mulls Private Operator for Cape Canaveral Launch Site

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The U.S. Air Force is looking into turning over its Florida spaceport to a commercial operator that would be overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a potential cost-cutting move that also could help make the busy Cape Canaveral launch site more business-friendly.

The idea is not new, but military budget cutbacks, coupled with a maturing and more experienced commercial space industry, could provide impetus to the project that previous initiatives lacked. 

“This is a subject that has been discussed easily for the last 10 years, probably 15,” said Frank DiBello, president and chief executive of Space Florida, the state-backed economic development agency. 

“As the Department of Defense (DoD) looks to prioritize the expenditure of its budget — which is always limited but certainly as we look at the next decade, it’s going to be more stressed — it’s causing them to look at better ways at acquiring the goods and services that it needs across the board,” DiBello said.

Another financial pressure is the prospect that proposed commercial spaceports in Texas and elsewhere will leave the military with fewer companies to share overhead costs at Cape Canaveral. 

“You have a change agent like Elon Musk showing that there are different ways that this can be done in the launch vehicle arena,” said Edward Ellegood, a space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., referring to the chief executive of Space Exploration Technologies Corp.  (SpaceX). “He’s threatening to establish launch capabilities elsewhere, which even though they are going to be commercially focused would eventually impact the government missions that happen in Florida. The fewer commercial launch operations you have here, the higher the cost is going to be for the government ones. 

“If Elon Musk can provide a commercial launch service at a fraction of the cost from Texas as an equivalent service can be offered at the Cape, ultimately the Air Force is going to start operating more like the Navy and procure its launch services on the commercial market instead of operating a squadron of airman and civil servants to manage a launch complex.”

Plans are fluid and evolving, but the Air Force’s starting point is that the portions of the 45th Space Wing and Eastern Range that oversee base and range activities, including safety services, would be eliminated and replaced by an FAA-licensed commercial launch site operator. The military, however, would continue to be responsible for public safety for launches of Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office and other government satellites. 

The new range operator would be responsible for maintaining, upgrading and managing the range under a lease or other arrangement with the Air Force. Current leases for launch and payload processing facilities, such as those the Air Force has with United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, would remain under the Air Force’s purview.

“The concept … is that launch programs — U.S., commercial, civil and national security space sector launch and test and evaluation programs — would contract for support services as need(ed) for their missions from an FAA-licensed commercial launch site operator that manages the surface transportation (e.g., airport, port, roads, etc.) and utility infrastructure, support services and range capabilities as a business or quasi-government entity,” the Air Force wrote in a proposal titled “Eastern Range and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Spaceport Concept.”

The initiative, labeled “predecisional,” was posted on the military’s procurement website along with an announcement of a two-day public meeting at Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., July 18-19.

A similar transformation already is under way at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, located just north of the Air Force’s launch site. NASA has turned over the shuttle’s runway and one of its processing hangars to Space Florida to manage and develop. It currently is reviewing at least two proposals from private companies interested in leasing a mothballed shuttle launch pad. 

“With increasing capabilities in the private sector, some day it will no longer be necessary for NASA to operate its own launch services program, its own set of launch capabilities, except where they are uniquely configured for a mission that doesn’t also satisfy commercial needs,” DiBello said. 

“For example, if we were organizing a mission to Mars and the capabilities required were truly unique, that would mean there is probably not a commercial market and you might in that case configure a uniquely governmental function. But it’s hard for me to see with even with respect to Mars transportation that someday those couldn’t be provided by commercial capabilities,” he added.

DiBello said the prospect of a commercial spaceport operator at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station does not alleviate the need for a new launch pad proposed for an area north of the space shuttle launch pads in an old citrus community known as Shiloh. Space Florida issued a solicitation for an environmental review for the site on July 15.