Air Force looking for ideas on how to turn launch ranges into ‘national spaceports’

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Air Force Space Command to consider options for how to make launch ranges more responsive to commercial needs

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Space Command will hold a tabletop exercise this week focused on the future of military launch facilities and how they can support growth in commercial space.

The exercise, to be held Nov. 5-7 in Chantilly, Virginia, is an effort by Air Force Space Command to gather ideas on how to transform the military’s launch ranges into multi-use national spaceports that can better accommodate national security, civil and commercial launch demands.

Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, the Department of Commerce and senior Air Force leaders are expected to participate, a spokesperson for Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) said in a statement to SpaceNews.

The interagency discussion on the future of the Air Force’s launch ranges follows a request for information that AFSPC posted on Sept. 12 asking for “Management and/or Operational Concepts for a National Spaceport with the spaceports collocated with the current Eastern and Western Ranges.” Responses were due Oct. 11.

The Eastern Range supports rocket launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The Western Range supports launch activities at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Both ranges are managed and regulated by the Air Force, whereas commercial spaceports are under the jurisdiction of the FAA.

The commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. John Raymond, who also runs U.S. Space Command, has called for investments in infrastructure and changes in how ranges are managed so they are more responsive to national security and economic demands for space launch.

The RFI seeks ideas to “transform current ranges into flexible and agile sites utilized for both national security and commercial space launch missions,” the AFSPC spokesperson said. The tabletop exercise is intended to help “evolve our thinking about the future of the ranges and includes all current and potential future range users: commercial, civil, and DoD.”

According to Raymond’s vision, AFSPC can “preserve and advance national security interests through globally competitive ranges with capacity to support launch and test operations on demand,” the spokesperson said.

The responses to the RFI and the tabletop exercise are for information gathering, and no changes are expected in the organization or management of ranges at this point, the spokesperson said. “There is no established timeline for any transition, nor is AFSPC actively seeking vendors at this time. This is a thought exercise to better understand the gaps and seams that exists between the different agencies who would be involved.”

AFSPC is exploring all potential ideas on the subject, the spokesperson said. “The intent of the exercise is to help us understand how we might evolve to meet the growing demand for space launch resources on our ranges. At this time we cannot definitively say what would change because the details of the construct have not been determined.”

According to the RFI, “space launch ranges must evolve into globally competitive national spaceports that utilize agile and rapid acquisition methodologies, challenge stagnant policies, update governance documentation, and establish interagency agreements to meet future demands.”

Commercial activities will create a demand for greater access to these military facilities, said the RFI. “As the U.S. commercial space launch industry expands, the capabilities of our ranges will also need to expand to support and exploit the resulting increased launch throughput.”

The RFI asked for management concepts that address “scheduling, commodity management and resource management.”

Maj. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of space programs at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said there is a growing realization that future launch ranges need to be responsive and flexible, like airports. “Still safe, but more like an airport,” she told SpaceNews.

A former commander of the 45th Space Wing and director of Eastern Range, Armagno, said that making ranges more responsive is not just about investments in modern infrastructure, but also regulatory changes that would help reduce the cost of launch.