ORLANDO, Fla. — With congestion growing at the nation’s major launch sites in California and Florida, operators of inland spaceports are seeking creative ways to host orbital launches.

The number of commercial launches licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration more than tripled between fiscal year 2020, with 31 licensed launches, and fiscal year 2023, with 106. The FAA is forecasting 111 launches in fiscal year 2024, according to data presented by Pam Underwood, director of the FAA’s Office of Spaceports, in a Jan. 29 presentation at the annual meeting of the Global Spaceport Alliance here.

That growth, though, has largely been at federal ranges: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Federal ranges accounted for 51% of licensed launches in fiscal year 2020, growing to 78% in 2023.

“Why? Infrastructure, capabilities, services, are all readily available at those locations,” she said. “That’s where industry has gravitated towards.”

Those facilities are also designed to support vertical orbital launches, which accounted for more than 80% of licensed launches in recent years. While there are 14 FAA-licensed launch sites, many of them are in inland locations that traditionally have been unable to host orbital launches because of range safety issues.

One spaceport is trying to change that. Spaceport America in New Mexico, best known for hosting Virgin Galactic suborbital flights, has been working to win funding for an “Orbital Launch Challenge” prize. The competition would award $2 million to the first company to receive an FAA license for, and later attempt, an orbital launch from Spaceport America.

“What I’m disappointed in is that the Space Force and others are very focused on the Cape and Vandenberg and Wallops,” said Scott McLaughlin, executive director of Spaceport America, in an interview. “There’s no emphasis on making launches safe enough to fly over humans. I think that’s a natural progression and it just doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s radar right now.”

That would require vehicle operators to find ways to abort safely, he said. “Maybe your payload capacity goes down, but then you have the ability to do something safer,” he said, which would likely favor, at least initially, horizontal launch systems with wings.

McLaughlin said he proposed the $2 million competition to New Mexico legislators recently, but that it was unlikely that the state would provide the funding for the challenge this year. “I hope to push again next year and maybe start working with the other spaceports that are interested,” he said. There have been “casual conversations” with other inland spaceports as well as launch companies interested in inland launch.

The issue of inland vertical launch came up during a session of the Space Mobility conference here Jan. 30, with spaceport operators and Space Force officials suggesting it is unlikely to happen soon.

“I see it being years away,” said Ted Mercer, head of the Virginia Spaceport Authority, which operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island. “It’s about flight heritage: when do you consider a particular model of rocket to have X number of consecutive successful launches that you would call it routine?”

He suggested the Falcon 9, which has had one in-flight failure in nearly 300 launches, might qualify. “Is that routine? It’s getting close in my mind,” he said. “But the community is going to have to decide what that number is.”

“There are capabilities that are evolving both in the context of reusability as well as precision landing that might enable that,” said John Steinmeyer, executive director for Assured Access to Space at the Space Force’s Space Systems Command. But, he added, “there are significant policy implications that need to be addressed and we have to have a whole body of work to demonstrate significant reliability.”

For one Australian spaceport, inland launches will not be a problem. Michael Jones, executive chairman of Equatorial Launch Australia, said on the panel that his company has identified trajectories that enable launches from the Arnhem Space Centre in Australia’s Northern Territory that go to the south for missions to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). “We can launch to SSO, 3,700 kilometers, and not fly over a person.”

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...