A Falcon 9 lifts off Jan. 18, 2023 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

For the world’s busiest spaceport, it’s the best of times and the worst of times.

The combination of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center hosted 57 launches in 2022, more than any other launch range in the world and more launches than any other country except China. Those launches spanned the gamut from the Space Launch System and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to Astra’s Rocket 3.3 small launch vehicle.

That surge in activity — Cape Canaveral hosted 31 launches in 2021 — has created a palpable sense of excitement about an industry finally showing the growth that had long been predicted. “We haven’t seen this kind of space activity since the 1960s,” said Col. James Horne, deputy director of launch and range operations for the Space Force’s Space Systems Command.

Horne, speaking at the Feb. 20 annual summit of the Global Spaceport Alliance, an association of spaceports and related companies, said he was amazed at what was going on at the Cape today. “I’ve been in the launch business for 18 years and I’ve never seen this kind of activity,” he said. “It’s unbelievable when you drive around Cape Canaveral today.”

That growth is projected to continue. Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, commander of Space Launch Delta 45, the Space Force unit that oversees the Eastern Range, said the service was projecting 92 launches from the range in 2023, nearly triple the activity just two years earlier.

“Everyone knows that launches are increasing,” he said at the Space Mobility conference in Orlando Feb. 21. “What’s shocking is how fast they’re increasing.”

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is seen on KSC’s Launch Pad 39B in September 2022.

That growth is not limited to the Cape. Purdy said that Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, which hosted 11 launches in 2021 and 19 in 2022, could support 42 launches this year. “That’s insane.”

He acknowledged that launch activity rarely meets projections, but the growth trajectory was clear. In a later panel at the conference, Col. Mark Shoemaker, vice commander of Space Launch Delta 45, estimated “80-ish” launches from the Cape in 2023. “A lot of us thought that would be unobtainable a few years ago,” he said.

That surge in launch activity brings with it challenges. Traditionally, companies and government agencies have focused on issues like licensing or access to airspace for launches. But at the series of events that marked Commercial Space Week in Orlando in February, a bigger and more fundamental issue emerged: the infrastructure at spaceports, especially at the Cape, to handle increased launches.

“Congestion is becoming a huge challenge for us,” Horne said. “All of our mechanisms that we use to manage this business area are starting to show strains.”

Strained infrastructure

For now, the level of launch activity at the Cape remains manageable. Shoemaker said that in the last 12 months, Space Launch Delta 45 received 329 requests for launch dates on the Eastern Range, of which it approved 238. That led to 58 launches and 11 scrubs for weather or technical issues.

“Very few times is it the weather that is causing the delay and only one time did the FAA, on the air side, say they couldn’t approve a launch,” he said, with customer issues accounting for most of the delays. “From a spaceport perspective, we are enabling whatever the customer wants to have done.”

But warning signs are emerging. One is that the Cape is effectively full. “Today, every single pad we have on the Cape is occupied by somebody or multiple somebodies,” Horne said during a panel at the SpaceCom conference Feb. 22. “There’s massive congestion, tons of construction going on.”

“A limiting factor is the environment,” said Janet Petro, director of the Kennedy Space Center, at Space Mobility. While her center sprawls over 144,000 acres, only 7,500 acres are “developable,” she said, with the rest set aside as wildlife refuge. Trying to expand the property that could be developed, such as for additional launch sites, would be difficult, she suggested.

The infrastructure to support those launch sites, such as power, commodities and roads, is aging. “We’re talking about 1960s infrastructure that we operate on today,” Horne said. “There’s billions of dollars of infrastructure investment that your federal ranges need.”

“Congestion is becoming a huge challenge for us. All of our mechanisms that we use to manage this business area are starting to show strains.” Col. James Horne, deputy director of launch and range operations for the Space Force’s Space Systems Command

Those concerns are not theoretical. Petro described a challenge the center faced supporting the Falcon Heavy launch of USSF-67, a national security mission, from Launch Complex 39A in January. Delays in the launch of Artemis 1 from the center, which finally lifted off last November, had postponed planned maintenance of facilities run by a contractor, Air Liquide, which provided commodities like gaseous nitrogen needed to support the launch.

The lead engineer for Air Liquide, Petro recalled, “was getting really nervous about maintenance, safety and risks associated with the system going down, that was going to impact this national security mission.” Ultimately, SpaceX brought in its own equipment to provide gaseous nitrogen to support the launch.

“It was a great example of how, with the high ops tempo, we’re going to have to start thinking about things like all of the systems that support launch that need maintenance,” she said.

Those issues extend to mundane, yet important, services like the power grid and sewer lines. “You wouldn’t consider them part of a launch campaign,” said Thomas Engler, who leads the center planning and development directorate at KSC, “but those things are critical.”

He noted on a SpaceCom panel that the center was already trying to juggle growing power demands at the center. That included “carving out” part of the grid that serves Exploration Park, the commercial development just outside the center’s gates, so that a local utility could set up a substation to meet the needs of Blue Origin’s New Glenn manufacturing facility there.

KSC Director Janet Petro poses in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building.

The grid may soon hit the breaking point, though. SpaceX is building a Starship launch pad at Launch Complex 39A, its launch tower already overshadowing the existing Falcon pad. “Potentially, as they start to evolve that pad, we cannot supply the power to 39A for Starship at some point,” he warned. “It just gets overwhelmed.”

Even something as seemingly simple as maintaining a road is difficult. “Our roads are not adequate to support how we transport things back and forth across KSC and the Cape,” Horne said. Some bridges can’t be used, he added, because they can’t support the loads of vehicles transporting rockets or spacecraft.

“We frankly don’t have a lot of mechanisms to move fast on any of that,” he said. He described one bit of bureaucratic sleight-of-hand where the Space Force worked with Space Florida, the state space development agency, to lease a road to Space Florida and had it handle a widening project for it, then returned it to service. “If I had to do that the old-fashioned way, it would have taken me 20 years.”

That, he said, was because of the slow pace of military construction projects in general. He noted work had only recently started at nearby Patrick Space Force Base for a new entrance gate, even though it had been on the books to be built for more than 15 years. “We can’t operate like that anymore.”

New authorities, new funding

A common refrain from both NASA and Space Force officials is that the current approach to maintaining and upgrading launch infrastructure at the Cape, which dates from the early Space Age when government was the primary customer, no longer worked when launch activity was dominated by the commercial sector.

“We are not allowed to take commercial partners’ money and invest it in our infrastructure,” Petro said. “It’s preventing us from really supporting the entire industry, commercial and government, as they operate on our center.”

Similarly, she noted NASA could not include commercial needs when contracting for services like commodities. “We’re not getting the benefit of volume discounts and so forth that you would probably be able to leverage if we were to include those requirements in our contacts.”

Horne offered a similar message. “We have outmoded legislative authorities and funding mechanisms,” he said. That includes the “excess capacity” approach where federal ranges support commercial launches only when not being used for government activities, even as commercial launches dominate the use of the ranges. “It’s completely the opposite of the dynamic we’re operating in today.”

Another challenge is a lack of funding dedicated to spaceport infrastructure. “Traditionally, our country has provided some kind of federal financial support for infrastructure for all of our modes of transportation,” said George Nield, former FAA associate administrator for space transportation, at Space Mobility. All modes, he noted, but space. “That’s something we need to fix.”

For several years, industry advocated for FAA spaceport infrastructure grants, modeled on those the agency provides to airports. However, there’s been little progress on securing funding for such grants.

“A lot of the burden is being carried by the federal ranges, and they’re not getting all that they need in order to keep up with demand,” said FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation Kelvin Coleman.

At the Global Spaceport Alliance meeting, Kelvin Coleman, current FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said that issue is a topic for a new National Spaceport Interagency Working Group. That group, established last June, includes the FAA, NASA, Defense Department and other agencies.

“They’re going to come up with a set of recommendations,” he said of the committee. “A lot of the burden is being carried by the federal ranges, and they’re not getting all that they need in order to keep up with demand.”

Coleman said that, ultimately, it will be an issue for the National Space Council, given the various federal agencies involved. He said that the FAA presented the issue of spaceport funding to the council already, but was told to first have the working group take it up and offer some recommendations. “As we get down the road and come up with some really strong recommendations, I know it will get the attention of the National Space Council.”

Learning to share

Increased funding for spaceport infrastructure is only part of the long-term solution for Cape Canaveral’s infrastructure problems. With land limited and demand growing, some have suggested it’s time for the development of multi-user launch pads shared by several companies.

Horne says that, for now, there’s little interest in doing so among launch providers. “Not a single launch service provider wants to do that,” he said. “It will be interesting to see, when they start stepping all over each other, how that changes.”

The Spaceport Company is working to develop mobile sea-based launch pads it argues can help address congestion at existing launch sites.

An exception to that is Mark Lester, chief operating officer of Phantom Space and who formerly ran the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska launch site on Kodiak Island. He said at SpaceCom his company is open to sharing launch pads with other companies, showing off designs of proposed facilities at Vandenberg that could be used both by Phantom’s small vehicles under development as well as other vehicles in the same performance class.

He compared it to airlines sharing a gate at an airport. “At the end of the day, all I care about, and my stakeholders care about, is that I get access to the orbits my customers need when we need it.”

KSC’s Engler, though, suggested rockets may not be standardized enough for a common pad to make sense. “As long as each individual company designs its own individual interface to a launch pad, we’re not going to be able to be successful in sharing this infrastructure,” he said.

Another alternative is to move launch pads offshore. A startup, The Spaceport Company, pitched its plans to develop mobile offshore launch platforms that could be used by small launch vehicles. The platforms, based on an existing ship design called a liftboat, would travel from a port to locations in U.S. territorial waters, then anchor themselves to the seafloor to host a launch.

“It’s scalable,” Tom Marotta, founder and chief executive of the company, said at SpaceCom. “It’s a lot easier to build more ships to meet more launch demand than it is to go find 100 acres on the coast somewhere.”

His company is planning a demonstration of the system in May, launching four sounding rockets from a modified ship in the Gulf of Mexico. The company plans to announce relationships with launch companies in the near future as it works to raise money to start work on the first launch platforms.

Launches could simply move to other terrestrial spaceports, like Rocket Lab’s growing presence at Virginia’s Wallops Island, which has a pad for Electron launches and will host the company’s larger Neutron rocket. But for orbital launches there are few other options today, or for the foreseeable future, given the expense and regulatory difficulty in establishing new spaceports for vertically launched orbital rockets.

If the industry continues to grow, moving to other launch sites may only be a temporary fix. “Our goal is to squeeze all of the efficiencies out of the Cape and elsewhere,” said Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and community relations at Space Florida. “Florida is dealing with issues today that every other spaceport in the world is going to have to deal with eventually.”

This article originally appeared as “Cape congestion: The world’s most active launch site is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success” in the March 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...