WASHINGTON — The Spaceport Company, a startup working to create mobile sea-based rocket launch pads, landed a $2.5 million contract from the Defense Innovation Unit, an organization that scouts commercial tech for the Pentagon.

The award, announced May 28, will help fund the development of a prototype ocean-going launch complex built on a repurposed Navy torpedo recovery vessel. It’s part of a new DIU program called Novel Responsive Space Delivery aimed at making U.S. access to space more resilient.

The military views sea-based launch as one option to reduce vulnerability and congestion at traditional spaceports. An ocean platform could provide flexibility to pick ideal launch locations while steering clear of populated areas and rough weather.

For The Spaceport Company, founded in 2022, it’s a major milestone on an ambitious journey, CEO Tom Marotta told SpaceNews.

The firm last year won $1.5 million from a separate DIU program, the National Security Innovation Capital. The contract was in support of a “Liftboat” concept for converting offshore oil rigs into floating launch sites.

The new contract is not for Liftboat but for a more near-term project to convert a decommissioned U.S. Navy torpedo recovery vessel into a functional launchpad. This leverages a readily available platform for faster development, said Marotta. 

Next test launch later this year

The company purchased the 180-foot vessel in February and it’s refurbishing it at a Mississippi shipyard to prepare it as a launch platform for testing later this year. Marotta said the vessel’s large deck, deeper water capability, and greater mobility made it an attractive option to build a launch pad. 

While promising, sea-launched rockets face major technical hurdles and doubts about the business case. An earlier effort called Sea Launch went bankrupt a decade ago.

Marotta said new technology, a more competitive launch market, and renewed military interest can revive the concept’s fortunes.

Early missions will focus on launching sounding rockets for hypersonic weapon tests and scientific research payloads, he said. But the long-term goal is developing a sea-based pad for launching small orbital rockets.

Austin Baker, deputy portfolio director for DIU’s space portfolio, emphasized the strategic importance of a sea-based platform. “The ability to rapidly respond to space-based needs is critical,” he said in a DIU release, highlighting the project’s potential to address logistical challenges and contested launch environments.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...