Inland spaceports are looking for ways to host orbital launches

ORLANDO, Fla. – As congestion grows at the nation's major launch sites in California and Florida, inland spaceport operators are looking for innovative ways to host orbital launches.

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

However, this growth has been largely at federal domains: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Federal ranges accounted for 51% of authorized launches in fiscal 2020, rising to 78% in 2023.

“Why? The infrastructure, capacity and services are all readily available in those locations,” she said. “That’s where the industry gravitated to.”

These facilities are also designed to support vertical orbital launches, which have accounted for more than 80% of licensed launches in recent years. While there are 14 FAA-licensed launch sites, many are located inland locations that have traditionally not been able to host orbital launches due to range safety issues.

One spaceport is trying to change that. Spaceport America in New Mexico, best known for hosting Virgin Galactic's suborbital flights, is working to win funding for the Orbital Launch Challenge. The competition will award $2 million to the first company to obtain FAA authorization and later attempt an orbital launch from Spaceport America.

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“What I'm disappointed in is that the Space Force and others are so focused on the Cape, Vandenberg and Wallop,” Scott McLaughlin, CEO of Spaceport America, said in an interview. “There's no focus on making launches safe enough to fly over humans. I think that's a natural evolution and it doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar right now.”

That will require vehicle operators to find ways to cancel safely, he said. “Maybe your payload capacity will go down, but then you'll 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 contest to New Mexico lawmakers recently, but the state is unlikely to provide funding for that challenge this year. “I hope to push again next year and perhaps start working with other interested spaceports,” he said. There have been “informal talks” with other inland spaceports as well as launch companies interested in inland launches.

The issue of an internal vertical launch came up during a Space Mobility Conference session here on Jan. 30, with spaceport operators and Space Force officials indicating it was unlikely to happen soon.

“I see it as years away,” said Ted Mercer, president of the Virginia Spaceport Authority, which operates the mid-Atlantic regional spaceport on Wallops Island. “It's about aviation heritage: When do you consider a particular model of rocket to have X number of consecutive successful launches that you would call routine?”

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

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“There are capabilities evolving in the context of reusability as well as precision landing that might enable that,” said John Steinmeier, executive director of the Space Assured Access Division at the Space Force's Space Systems Command. But he added: “There are important policy implications that need to be addressed, and we have to have a full body of work to show significant reliability.”

For an Australian spaceport, inland launches won't be a problem. Michael Jones, CEO of Equatorial Launch Australia, told the panel his company had identified trajectories that would enable launches from Arnhem Space Center in Australia's Northern Territory that headed south for missions to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). “We can launch into SSO, 3,700 kilometres, and not fly over anyone.”

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