WASHINGTON — The need to modernize U.S. spaceports has been discussed for years, but major upgrades have yet to materialize. With $1.3 billion in projected funding for spaceport improvements, the Space Force is now trying to move these plans forward, identifying the most critical areas needing attention in the near-term.

“There’s a significant effort to define what we need to be able to support the capacity and the pace of launch that our nation needs,” said Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, program executive officer for assured access to space and director of launch and range operations of Space Systems Command. 

Based at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida, Panzenhagen in June assumed command of Space Launch Delta 45, and oversees the nation’s busiest spaceport on the Florida coast. 

Speaking Oct. 19 at the AFCEA Space Industry Days conference in Los Angeles, Panzenhagen expressed optimism that initiatives to bring East Coast and West Coast spaceports into the future could soon become reality. “It takes a lot of investment. It takes a lot of planning,” she said.

The Space Force has conducted a detailed analysis of spaceport requirements given the increased pace of commercial space launch, she said. 

Increasing commerical launch pace

About 150 launches are forecasted for 2023, the majority conducted by SpaceX which is ramping up launches of its Starlink constellation as well as missions for commercial and government customers. The company is on track to launch more than 100 missions this year and projects about 144 for 2024

Beyond 2024, the Space Force is preparing for an increased launch pace fueled not just by SpaceX but by other companies introducing new rockets, including United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and others. 

According to the consulting firm Deloitte, over the last five years, about 93% of all orbital missions launched from U.S. government ranges, including 70% from Cape Canaveral, 17% from Vandenberg, and 5% from Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

Topping the list of needed spaceport upgrades is a boosting in capacity for processing satellites and preparing them for launch, said Panzenhagen. This creates a significant bottleneck that slows down the launch pace, given the number of spacecraft requiring integration, testing, fueling and transport to the pad.

“We know it takes a long time to build a satellite. And it takes a while to get a booster out to the pad. But that integration timeline can be pretty extensive as well,” she said. “We need to put collective thought into how we decrease that time.”

At both East and West Coast ranges  — at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California — more capacity is needed for satellite processing, Panzenhagen said. 

Many national security missions carry multiple payloads that share a ride, and each payload has to be processed at different security levels. “We just don’t have the capacity for that,” she added.

A number of “spaceport of the future” initiatives will be funded under a $1.3 billion budget line requested by the Biden administration for fiscal years 2024 through 2028. 

“But that is still not going to be enough,” he said. “This is a huge effort and we are still defining what exactly the spaceport of the future looks like.”

Immediate priorities

Infrastructure is a big deal, said Panzenhagen. “We need to upgrade roads, bridges, airfields, anything that you use to transport either a rocket or a satellite to the pad.”

One of the bridges at the Cape, for example, “gives us a lot of concern,” because it may not be able to support larger rockets. Building a new bridge is the obvious answer, she said, “But that takes planning, it takes funding. And a lot of other organizations and even other priorities within this organization are competing for that funding.”

Another priority is improved port access. “We share port access with the busiest cruise port in the world, and a lot of things come to our base from the water,” said Panzenhagen. “So there’s a lot of conversations on how we’re going to work that out.”

Other planned upgrades are in the power infrastructure and physical security. 

IT improvements needed

Panzenhagen said the Space Force recently hired commercial IT experts “to take a deep dive into our IT architecture.”

They suggested upgrades to the IT infrastructure, but there are still unresolved issues, such as the integration of data stovepipes.

As the Eastern Range director, Panzenhagen has to supervise every launch mission, but that requires looking at data from multiple systems, some located at separate facilities. “I don’t have a common operating picture at this point where I can see all of the data that I would need to make decisions.”

Data on the rocket is the most important, but it would be helpful to have an integrated picture that also shows, for example, the status of power or water supply, or the location of security roadblocks in the area. “I can’t do that from the console,” she said. “I have to get in my car and drive to a building where I have a board that has physical thumbtacks on it,” she said. “It’s still better than it was a few years ago.”

It’s not enough to have a room where multiple computer or TV screens are physically colocated, said Panzenhagen. The goal is to have a common picture that also could be accessed by leaders at Space Systems Command headquarters in Los Angeles, for example. 

Direct vs. indirect costs

Launch companies reimburse the Space Force for some expenses directly linked to usage of the range, such as utilities. Panzenhagen said “we are constantly looking at the cost models to make sure we are being completely accurate and completely transparent with what we’re doing.”

Under a separate initiative, the Defense Department has submitted a legislative proposal to create a “port authority” model for launch operations on the Eastern and Western Ranges, allowing the Space Force to charge commercial users fees to recoup its costs. 

“When I’ve talked to the launch service providers about this so far, they haven’t had an issue with the potential for paying the indirect costs as long as they see exactly where they’re coming from,” said Panzenhagen.

So, again, we’re going back to our cost accounting and our cost modeling just to make sure that we are being fully transparent on that. 

The Space Force also wants to simplify spaceport governance so launch companies are not required to comply with different sets of regulations and processes at each spaceport. 

These policy issues, said Panzenhagen, are “extremely important for being able to launch successfully.”

Inland spaceports not in the cards

Orbital rocket launches are only allowed from spaceports on the coast for safety reasons. At the conference in Los Angeles, Panzenhagen was asked if she would support considering inland spaceports as possible launch sites.

She said the Space Force wants to diversify its options and is considering launching from overseas pads with international partners. “But as far as inland launch, I think it is worth doing a safety analysis and seeing where we are,” she said. “We’ve got a lot more data now than we did five or six years ago, just because we have a lot more launches.”

There are still concerns about the possibility of rockets exploding over populated areas, so she does not expect the current policy to change. “If we did the analysis and determined it was safe for the American public, that would also require a huge PR campaign,” Panzenhagen said. 

“We’ve seen for example, China do inland launches and that does not work out well for their citizens oftentimes,” she said. “So we definitely don’t want to put the American public in that situation. But it’s worth studying. So I wouldn’t commit to an answer on that. But I think it’s always worth doing the study.”

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...