WASHINGTON — SpaceX is getting a second launch pad on the West Coast after gaining approval to lease Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, a historic site previously occupied by United Launch Alliance. 

Space Launch Delta 30, the Space Force unit that manages the West Coast launch ranges, announced April 24 that SpaceX will use the pad to launch Falcon rockets.

SpaceX is expanding operations at Vandenberg – it has leased SLC-4 since 2015 — following a period of extraordinary growth fueled by commercial launch demand and the deployment of its Starlink internet mega-constellation.  SLC-6 would be SpaceX’s fifth launch site in the United States. Besides SLC-4 at Vandenberg, it has two launch pads in Florida and one at Starbase in south Texas.

The company launched 61 orbital missions in 2022, nearly doubling its previous single-year record of 31 launches set in 2021. It has set a goal of 100 launches for 2023. 

The enormous SLC-6 launch site went up for grabs after the final flight of ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy on Sept. 24. ULA will consolidate West Coast launch operations for its new vehicle Vulcan Centaur at SLC-3, where Atlas 5 lifted off for the last time in November. 

“This is an exciting time for Vandenberg Space Force Base,” said Col. Robert Long, commander of Space Launch Delta 30. “This agreement will add to the rich history of SLC-6 and builds on the already strong partnership with SpaceX.”

SCL-6 was originally built in the 1960s to launch the Air Force’s never-flown Manned Orbital Laboratory. It was repurposed in the 1980s as a dedicated launch and landing site for military space shuttle missions. But Air Force mothballed the California site without ever conducting a West Coast shuttle launch. It reactivated the site in the 1990s for a handful of Lockheed Martin Athena launches and turned it over to ULA in 2006 for the Delta 4 program. 

Northrop Grumman in 2019 announced it planned to use SLC-6 to launch the Omega solid rocket that it was developing for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 competition. But the company discontinued the program after losing out to ULA and SpaceX for the NSSL Phase 2 contracts. 

U.S. launch ranges in transition

In an interview last week at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Long said there were “many interested parties” competing for the SLC-6 lease. 

He said the Space Force looks at many different factors when allocating launch facilities to commercial providers. “Anytime you take a launch site and you tie that up for years or decades, you want to make sure the government is getting value out of that launch property. And so we go through that entire assessment and then make a decision on who comes next.”

Col. James Horne, deputy director of launch and range operations at the Space Force’s Space Systems Command, said partnerships with commercial launch providers are a matter of national security because the military relies on these companies for access to space.

Both the East Coast and West Coast launch ranges are taking significant steps to accommodate commercial growth, he told SpaceNews.  

The Florida ranges at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center are projecting 92 orbital launches in 2023, compared to 57 in 2022. At Vandenberg, launches are expected to double from 19 last year to nearly 40 in 2023. 

“We benefit from the innovation in the commercial industry,” said Horne.

Col Mark Shoemaker, vice commander of the Space Launch Delta 45 unit that oversees Cape Canaveral, noted that launch cadence is one way the United States and China compete as space powers. 

The United States in 2021 for the first time was outpaced by China which launched 55 space missions, compared to 43 by the U.S. 

“It’s all about space access,” Shoemaker said in an interview. “And there’s no space access without the spaceports, and what we’re doing is enabling the nation’s capacity in space, whether it’s for national security, civil or commercial.”

As the owners of the launch ranges, “we need to stay ahead of this wave of need from the industry, and we need to do it from a military and national security perspective, but we need to do that in partnership with our commercial companies,” Long said.

Conversations with launch executives at the recent Space Symposium “confirmed that the tempo is not going to decrease anytime in the near future,” Long added. And those forecasts strongly shape the Space Force’s launch pad allocation strategies.

Horne noted that the Pentagon’s proposed five-year budget for fiscal years 2024-2028 has $1 billion worth of investments in federal spaceport infrastructure. “We’re ramping up,” he said. 

Cape Canaveral LC-14
Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 14, seen here supporting Atlas launches of Mercury missions in the 1960s, is one of three historic launch sites the Space Force has assigned to small launch vehicle startups. Credit: NASA

At the Cape, particularly, there is “limited real estate,” Horne said, so the Space Force continuously works with the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and other agencies to figure out ways to squeeze in more launch opportunities. 

Shoemaker pointed out that the ranges typically approve a much larger number of launches than actually take place. “It’s because the satellites are not ready for many of the launches we’re ready to support.”

The Space Force, meanwhile, has advocated for a commercial business model that would allow the ranges to operate more like airports or seaports, Horne noted. This would help support growth initiatives the industry has asked for. 

By law, DoD pays to operate and maintain the ranges and cannot accept private funding for infrastructure upgrades. Horne said the Space Force is open to other business models as long as they don’t impact the competitiveness of the U.S. industry. 

Some of these reforms are being considered by Congress and would require new legislation. “We want to be able to launch 300 missions a year” between the East and West ranges, Horne said, as long as it can be done without compromising safety. “We will do what we need for national security purposes and still maximize the opportunity for commercial industry.”

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...