ORLANDO — The Federal Aviation Administration forecasts that commercial launches it licenses could more than double in the next several years, putting an additional strain on the handful of spaceports that host them.
The forecast was included in a National Spaceports Policy report that the FAA submitted to Congress earlier in the month. The report, required by a provision of the 2018 FAA reauthorization act, was designed to evaluate space transportation needs and propose policies for supporting spaceport development.
The report noted that there were 74 FAA-licensed commercial space operations in fiscal year 2022, which includes both launches and reentries. That total is dominated by launches, with 69 in 2022 versus five reentries.
The forecast included in the report projected a sharp increase in licensed operations, growing from a range of 53 to 92 in fiscal year 2023 to a range of 59 to 186 in 2026, the final year of the forecast. The report does not break out launches and reentries, but historically launches have dominated the total, with the only reentries by a handful of commercial cargo and crew vehicles.
The report does not discuss the methodology of the forecast but notes the growing launch activity is driven by demand linked to large satellite constellations. “Based on announced plans for the launch of several large constellations of satellites and the existence of a number of launch vehicle development programs, the level of activity is likely to continue to grow for the foreseeable future,” the report stated.
The FAA has, in recent years, underestimated actual commercial space activity. In fiscal year 2022, it predicted between 45 and 68 licensed operations. In fiscal year 2021, it predicted between 36 and 44 licensed operations; there were 64.
The report, recently published on the FAA’s website, was released with little fanfare. Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, mentioned the report in a talk Feb. 20 at the annual summit of the Global Spaceport Alliance here.
“We certainly see 2023 as a year of opportunity for spaceports,” he said to an audience of spaceport operators and companies that support spaceport development. He noted that the FAA’s Office of Spaceports, created by the 2018 reauthorization, has been working with federal and other officials “to identify current challenges that might hinder your success while also planning for the space ecosystem of the future.”
One challenge in the report is that, even with the growth in the number of licensed spaceports, launch activity remains clustered in a few locations, including Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and neighboring Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The report noted that federal ranges like those accounted for 50 of 69 licensed launches in fiscal year 2022, or 83% of all FAA-licensed launches taking place from the United States when excluding FAA-licensed launches of Rocket Lab’s Electron from New Zealand.
“Demand now exceeds supply,” said Col. James T. Horne, III, deputy director of launch and range operations for the Space Force’s Space Systems Command, at the summit. “All of the mechanisms that we use to manage this business are starting to show the strains and the limitations in our ability to maximize United States and our allies’ access to space.”
The FAA report attributes the concentration of launches at federal ranges to two factors. One is the limited availability of other launch sites that can accommodate vertical launches, which account for the vast majority of launches. The other is a requirement in federal law that federal infrastructure be offered for commercial use at a “direct cost” that is, the report stated, “significantly cheaper than the rates commercial sites are typically able to offer.”
The Space Force is working to address the growing demand for launch through an initiative called Spaceport of the Future, formerly Range of the Future. That includes several initiatives from mandating the use of autonomous flight safety systems and thus reducing the required range assets for tracking launches to addressing how to fund infrastructure improvements.
“We’re looking at how do we overhaul and retool the way we operate every day, and think more like an airport, because that’s where we’re headed,” Horne said, foreseeing a day where a range could host multiple launches a day. “We have to get after how we can accommodate that kind of throughput in our spaceports.”
The FAA and the Space Force, among other agencies, are part of a National Spaceport Interagency Working Group established last June. The working group has a mission “to address optimal utilization of U.S. spaceport infrastructure,” Coleman said. It is looking at challenges that include infrastructure, access to airspace and adequate radio-frequency spectrum.
The group is working on a national spaceport strategy, with a draft in development, Horne said, incorporating comments from spaceports and launch operators. “We’re making a lot of progress.”