WASHINGTON — With increasing activity pushing Florida’s launch sites to their limits, the Space Force is studying ways to move some of that activity elsewhere, including to California.
In a presentation to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) May 15, Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, whose roles include director of the Eastern Range and director of launch and range operations for the Space Force’s Space Systems Command, noted the launch facilities at Cape Canaveral are nearing capacity.
“The Eastern Range is almost done doing everything it can do,” he said. That has included allocating three unused launch pads in March to four companies developing small launch vehicles, with a second round planned for larger vehicles. “When that’s done, we’re going to be very, very close to out of pads on the Eastern Range.”
When that is complete, there will be limited options, he suggested. Additional launch sites at the neighboring Kennedy Space Center could be built, but that would require working with NASA. He added he was working with Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island to support additional launches there, “but even they’ll be tapped out eventually.”
That could open the door to more creative solutions. Purdy noted the Space Force studied the ability to conduct launches to polar orbits, traditionally flown from the Western Range at Vandenberg Space Force Base, from Florida. “It turns out you can,” he said, with SpaceX launching several Falcon 9 missions to polar orbits in recent years from Florida.
“So we did the reverse: can you launch East Coast missions off the West Coast, from Vandenberg? Fascinatingly, you can,” he said. Such launches had traditionally been ruled out because of trajectories that would take vehicles over land.
He didn’t elaborate on the analysis in his presentation, but said it “opened the door” for long-term discussions about eventually conducting launches to lower-inclination orbits from Vandenberg. “As we continue to hone safety analyses for the ranges, and as some particular launch providers have got a large number of successful launches, we’ve been able to narrow the boxes more and more,” he said, referring to exclusion zones for launches.
That combination of reduced exclusion zones and improved vehicle track records, along with what Purdy described as a willingness to launch “with a couple boats in the water and perhaps a [general aviation] aircraft or two in the broad area,” could enable launches from Vandenberg on eastern trajectories. “That possibility starts to be intriguing, so I would encourage a national-level conversation to start the groundwork of what that would look like.”
Range and pad infrastructure is just one constraint on launch activity. He said the service needed to add more payload processing capacity at both Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg and was looking at options like establishing commercial payload processing facilities on Cape property. “We can prove definitively that if we don’t set these plans in motion on the Eastern and Western Ranges, we will run out of payload processing capability for DoD missions alone.”
A third issue is personnel. “People remains our biggest issue. At some point, we are going to run out of people and time to support commercial launch on the Eastern and Western Ranges,” he said. That includes security, emergency and engineering personnel needed to support each launch.
“That’s sustainable up to a number. We don’t know what that number is, but we have some guesstimates,” he said. “But at some point we break because we run out of people.”
Staffing levels are set by the requirements to support DoD activities, which are about 10 launches per year. “We’re not prepared or manned to support launch rates of 90,” he said, the estimated number of launches on the Eastern Range in 2023. “I project we’re going to be in the multiple hundreds here on a couple years.”
The Defense Department has offered 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 range fees to recoup its costs. Purdy said that would include an “open books” approach so that customers could see how the fees they pay are being spent to support range activities.
“But if we don’t have the ability to bring in that income to run a spaceport properly,” he warned, “we’ll just simply run out of the ability to support launches.”