The Space Review: The spaceport bottleneck (2023)

The Space Review: The spaceport bottleneck (1)

Two Falcon 9 rockets on neighboring pads in Florida for launches last year. The growing pace of launches and limitations of current spaceport infrastructure is becoming a bottleneck. (credit: SpaceX)

by Tom Marotta
Monday, April 10, 2023


The Space Review: The spaceport bottleneck (2)

Why does the United States have so many unused spaceports?

Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia is regularly congested with traffic. The source of the problem is a short section of the highway that abruptly narrows from five lanes to three. Fast-moving highway traffic slows to a crawl resulting in snarled commutes, missed deliveries, and ruined vacations.

America has more spaceports than any other country in the world — and more are planned — but most spaceports sit empty and unused.

This, of course, is the dreaded traffic bottleneck. Drivers across the world are familiar with this phenomenon: a highway is built, vehicle traffic grows, and eventually the infrastructure reaches its capacity.

The American rocket-launching industry is experiencing something of its own bottleneck. There are more satellites and rockets being built today than ever before. But only a handful of US spaceports see the lion’s share of rocket launch activity. As a result, these sites are increasingly congested.

This is not, however, due to insufficient infrastructure. Indeed, America has more spaceports than any other country in the world—and more are planned—but most spaceports sit empty and unused. Why do rocket launching companies choose to “wait in traffic” for their turn to launch from one of the crowded sites when it seems they could use an “alternate route” and launch from a spaceport with available capacity? And why does it matter?

Demand for orbital launches is sky high

The answer as to why most rocket launches occur from only four congested US spaceports has to do with orbital mechanics and government regulation. Not all rocket launches are the same: some go to suborbital space while some go to orbital space. Most launch activity today involves sending satellites to orbit. This is because there is a strong demand for data from space. We are living in a golden age of satellite development. The US Federal Communications Commission, the regulator that doles out the radiofrequency spectrum that satellites use to transmit information back to Earth, received requests for 38,000 new satellites in 2021. If even half of these satellites are actually launched that would more than triple the number of active satellites in orbit today. Many of these satellites will be launched by SpaceX for their Starlink constellation. But many will not: an additional 1,700 small satellites are expected to be launched every year for the remainder of the decade.

The only known way to get a satellite into orbit is to use a rocket. There is a large and growing backlog of demand to get all these satellites to orbit and, as a result, there is a healthy demand for launch pads capable of sending a rocket to orbit.

The Space Review: The spaceport bottleneck (3)

A map of US licensed launch sites. Many inland spaceports have not hosted a launch and cannot support orbital launches. (credit: FAA)

Launching to orbit from inland spaceports is not permitted

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates non-governmental (i.e. commercial) rocket launches. The FAA’s job is to make sure the public is protected from the risk of rocket launches. After all, rockets are basically just giant tubes of explosives that are purposefully lit on fire and shot through the air. They are getting more reliable all the time, but mishaps are still quite frequent. The chance of any given rocket exploding and spreading thousands of pieces of fiery shrapnel falling to Earth is unnervingly high.

This is why all commercial rocket launches to date have launched from spaceports on the coast: if a rocket explodes over the ocean, it’s a lot less likely to hurt a person or damage personal property. Or, to put it another way, the reason a commercial rocket has never been approved to launch to orbit from an inland spaceport is that all rockets (to date) have been unable to meet the safety criteria required by the FAA. And the system is working: FAA has a perfect safety record when it comes to space travel. No member of the public has ever been hurt or killed from a commercial rocket launch. The FAA is very proud of this record and continues to do everything possible to maintain it. That is why the FAA is unlikely to relax its safety criteria.

As congestion grows at existing sites and regulatory constraints impede inland launch, operating spaceports at sea becomes a more attractive option.

So, will we ever see a rocket reliable enough to launch from an inland spaceport? Perhaps. Air travel was notoriously dangerous in the early years of flight but, with increasing experience, eventually became the safest mode of travel. The SpaceX Falcon 9 is the most prolific US launch vehicle in operation today, having launched over 100 times since its last mishap in 2016. However, while 100 launches is impressive, it is not nearly the level of activity necessary to demonstrate the reliability necessary to permit inland launches. For that we’d probably need to see several thousand successful launches which, at current levels of launch activity (61 launches in 2022, a record level), could take decades.

This is why SpaceX, and every other orbital rocket company, launches from one of four coastal spaceports in the United States: getting approval to launch to orbit from available inland spaceports is essentially impossible due to the excessive risk it poses to public safety.

Why does solving the spaceport bottleneck matter?

Our modern economy is heavily dependent on data services from space:

  • World-spanning financial networks use precision timing services provided by the satellite-based Global Positioning System to synchronize financial transactions: literally trillions of dollars of global trade depend on reliable satellite communications.
  • Increasing numbers of people access the Internet using bandwidth provided by satellites. This is especially important in areas of the developing world lacking terrestrial communications networks.
  • The US Department of Defense purchases massive amounts of commercially-sourced satellite imagery to augment government-run surveillance capabilities. Many of the satellite photos of the Ukraine conflict that we see in the public media are provided by commercial firms selling the data to DoD.
  • Commercial synthetic aperture radar, signals intelligence, weather forecasting, and numerous other data services are all improving knowledge of our environment and our economy, generating incredible wealth and scientific knowledge. We would not know about climate change without satellite networks.

Maintaining the satellite constellations that deliver this data from space requires smoothly operating spaceports capable of conducting regular launches to orbit.

Furthermore, data is fungible. There is very little preventing our adversaries from supplanting the Western firms that currently dominate the satellite data market with their own state-supported firms. They will do this in part by maximizing their own access to space by operating better spaceports. We are in a new space race and having a variety of paths to orbit is essential to remaining in the lead.

So, what’s the solution?

There are three viable paths to solve the spaceport bottleneck: build new spaceports on land in the US, launch from non-US spaceports overseas, or build spaceports on floating platforms at sea. Building new orbital spaceports in the US has proven difficult: all recent proposals have been delayed or permanently blocked by local community opposition. Operating rocket systems overseas requires obtaining export control approvals from the State Department, a process that can take years. It’s also very expensive to maintain supply chains to far-flung rocket sites outside of the US (or even inside the US.)

That leaves launching from the sea. Boeing successfully operated a sea-based launch site in collaboration with Russia for 15 years at the beginning of this century. That partnership became untenable when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and the system was subsequently abandoned. SpaceX is investigating offshore launch platforms for their new rocket system and South Korea tested an offshore rocket launch system in 2022. China currently operates two offshore spaceport infrastructure systems that are regularly used to send satellites to orbit.

As congestion grows at existing sites and regulatory constraints impede inland launch, operating spaceports at sea becomes a more attractive option to meet the demand for orbital launch, and solving the spaceport bottleneck.

Tom Marotta is the Founder and CEO of The Spaceport Company. Prior to founding The Spaceport Company he was the Principal Launch Licensing Manager at Astra Space where he obtained the first FAA Part 450 launch license and helped establish Astra’s second spaceport, at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, in eight months, faster than it’s ever been done before. From 2016 to 2021 he worked at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation managing the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee and writing portions of the Part 450 licensing regulation. From 2010 to 2016 he was a US Foreign Service Officer having served overseas in West Africa, Europe, and Iraq. He was an original co-founder of the Beyond Earth Institute, a think tank focused on laying the policy framework for an enduring human presence in outer space, and co-authored ”The High Frontier: An Easier Way”.

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FAQs

Why are private companies looking to build spaceports? ›

By facilitating space launch, spaceports can generate revenue from launch fees and benefit from the investments made into launch campaigns and associated activities, such as research and development, manufacturing and servicing.

How many spaceports are there in the world? ›

Spaceports & Launch Sites

There are 35 spaceports and launch facilities worldwide that can launch satellites or spacecraft into suborbit, orbit, and beyond.

What is a spaceport and why is it important? ›

Spaceports are facilities used to launch, and in some cases land, spacecraft. Spaceports are similar to airports and seaports but have some unique features and requirements. They have to be able to support the assembly and launch of large, powerful rockets and the satellites or other cargoes that they carry.

Is privatization of space bad? ›

These commercial stations represent a new phase of space exploration and inhabitation, with proponents of privatization saying it will lead to lower costs, more research and development and a robust space economy. Critics point to the risks: lack of accountability, labor issues, environmental damage and more.

Why is space commercialization a problem? ›

Space is getting more crowded and more commercialized. This is leading to a growing risk of collisions between satellites and space junk, and means that new regulations on the use of space are urgently needed.

What is the largest spaceport in the world? ›

The Cosmodrome

How many space ports does the US have? ›

According to the National Spaceport Network Development Plan, prepared by the Global Spaceport Alliance for the FAA's Office of Spaceports, there are currently 13 FAA-licensed spaceports in the United States.

Who owns spaceport? ›

the State of New Mexico

What is the spaceport strategy? ›

The strategy will consist of three primary areas of interest: promote innovation and investment in spaceport infrastructure; establish consistency in operations and standards at the nation's spaceports; and promote cooperation and partnerships between federal and commercial spaceports.

Where is the best place on Earth to launch a rocket? ›

The land at the equator is moving 1670 km per hour, and land halfway to the pole is only moving 1180 km per hour, so launching from the equator makes the spacecraft move almost 500 km/hour faster once it is launched.

Why shouldn't we own land in space? ›

MOST LAND IN SPACE IS ALMOST WORTHLESS FOR HUMANS. Wherever we build in space, and whatever the future space legislation may be, there is one major difference from Earth. The actual land itself has almost no value for humans. There is nothing growing on it, and nothing can grow on it until you build on top of it.

Why should we not invest in space? ›

Space exploration is a waste of resources and its dangerous to , so may accident and problems happened in the space like shattering of space vehicles , explosions, pieces falling off and missing the gravity of earth , that is even waste more money to fix them . Save your time!

Has anyone privately gone to space? ›

25 May 2012 – The second mission of SpaceX's Dragon capsule completes a successful rendezvous and berthing with the International Space Station, making it the first private spacecraft to do so.

What is the biggest problem in space? ›

Star Wars would have you believe that the greatest challenges to space travel is asteroids, lack of resources like water or fuel, or even the threat of unfriendly, intelligent alien life. But in reality, scientists are finding that the biggest obstacle to today's space travel is dust. Yes, space dust.

What are the biggest problems in the space industry? ›

Problem: Space travel can present extreme environments that affect machine operations and survival. Like humans, machines are impacted by gravity, propulsive forces, radiation, gases, toxins, chemically caustic environments, static discharge, dust, extreme temperatures, frequent temperature variations and more.

Is space junk becoming a problem? ›

Fortunately, at the moment, space junk doesn't pose a huge risk to our exploration efforts. The biggest danger it poses is to other satellites in orbit. These satellites have to move out of the way of all this incoming space junk to make sure they don't get hit and potentially damaged or destroyed.

Is the US building a space station? ›

Current plans call for the space station to be operated through at least 2024, with the partners discussing a possible extension. NASA has approved an extension to 2030, although Russia says it will withdraw after 2024 to focus on building its own space station around 2028.

What is the biggest space Centre in the US? ›

Kennedy Space Center, one of 10 NASA field centers, is a premier multiuser spaceport with more than 90 private-sector partners and nearly 250 partnership agreements. The presence of commercial companies at NASA's Kennedy Space Center is larger than ever before, enabling us to embark on a new era of space exploration.

What is the US biggest space station? ›

The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest modular space station in low Earth orbit. The project involves five space agencies: the United States' NASA, Russia's Roscosmos, Japan's JAXA, Europe's ESA, and Canada's CSA.

Can you land at Spaceport America? ›

Can I land my plane at Spaceport America? Spaceport America is a prior permission required (PPR) airport. Occasionally, special fly-in events are scheduled and will be posted on the website event calendar in advance.

What country has the most spaceships? ›

1. United States of America (NASA/USSF) With a budget nearly twice that of the next-highest agency, the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is easily the most prolific and active space agency in the world.

Where is the best place to build a spaceport? ›

A beach or desert region is selected for spaceport locations in several countries. The sea and the desert are used as a buffer in case of an explosion.

How many U.S. ports are owned by China? ›

These include five ports in the United States: in Miami, Houston, Long Beach, Los Angeles and Seattle. "Trade is the circulatory system for the planet," said Isaac B. Kardon, a maritime specialist and Chinese linguist at the U.S. Naval War College on Rhode Island.

Who owns all U.S. ports? ›

Most major U.S. ports are publicly owned by a “port authority,” which is a public organization associated with a city, county, regional, or state government. A port typically contains many terminals that are each designed to handle different types of cargo.

Who owns the largest U.S. ports? ›

SSA Marine is the single biggest U.S.-owned terminal operator. Mr. BOB WATERS (Vice President, SSA Marine): We operate seven of those terminals.

Does Texas have a spaceport? ›

The Midland International Air & Space Port in Texas is Open for Business & FAA Approved. The Spaceport Business Park is conveniently located in Midland, Texas - the heart of oil & gas country. The Midland International Air & Space Port is the first to be co-located with a major commercial airport.

How much does it cost to tour Spaceport America? ›

Tours are subject to change or cancellation due to mission control requirements. Tickets are $49.99 for adults and $29.99 for children 12 and under. To book, visit finalfrontiertour.com, call 575 267-8888, or email cr@finalfrontiertour.com. Additional information is on the Spaceport website.

How much does it cost to build a spaceport? ›

New Mexico's Spaceport America is estimated to cost $198 million to build according to a report by US company DMJM: AECOM, the design and engineering firm hired by the state's Spaceport Authority (NMSA).

What is life of a spaceport janitor? ›

Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is an anti-adventure game about picking up trash in an alien bazaar. Play as the Janitor, an Alaensee girlbeast with a municipally-subsidized trash incineration job and dreams of leaving the planet of Xabran's Rock far behind her.

Does Japan have a spaceport? ›

The Tanegashima Space Center (TNSC), is the largest rocket-launch complex in Japan with a total area of about 9,700,000 square meters. Located in the south of Kagoshima Prefecture, along the southeast coast of Tanegashima, it is known as the most beautiful rocket-launch complex in the world.

Why do spaceships launch from Cape Canaveral? ›

The nearby Atlantic Ocean and the proximity to the equator are the two main reasons Cape Canaveral was chosen as the site for so many rocket launches.

How far away can you see a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral? ›

The closest possible launch viewing of any rocket launch from Cape Canaveral is offered for these sometimes, at just 2.3 miles away at the "LC-39 Observation Gantry", by buying tickets through the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Where does NASA keep their rockets? ›

The Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is the only facility where assembly of a rocket occurred that carried humans beyond low-Earth orbit and on to the Moon.

Is it better to launch rockets east or west? ›

Also, Earth rotates eastward on its axis, one complete turn each day. At the equator, Earth's surface is rotating at 1675 kilometers per hour (1041 miles per hour)! So if we launch the rocket toward the east, it will get another big boost from Earth's rotational motion.

What private companies are trying to go to space? ›

Three companies—Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX—are blazing their own separate paths into space tourism.

Why are they building a space station? ›

The mission of the International Space Station is to enable long-term exploration of space and provide benefits to people on Earth. With six state-of-the-art laboratories, the Space Station will be the premiere research facility in space, four times larger and more capable than any previous space station.

What companies are trying to colonize space? ›

Two startup space companies in California, Relativity Space and Impulse Space, announced today (July 19) that they are teaming up to launch the first commercial mission to Mars in 2024, years before the first potential trip by the more established SpaceX, which is known for its long-term plans to establish a human ...

Which private business is wanting to send up launches of their rockets for people to see space every week? ›

SpaceX and a Houston company are gearing up to launch four private citizens Friday on the first NASA-sanctioned, fully commercial flight to the International Space Station, a key step in a government push to encourage private-sector development on the high frontier.

Which companies are currently leading the way in space exploration? ›

From becoming the first private company to launch an object into orbit, to sending astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX is leading the way in private space exploration.

What is the most successful private space company? ›

With $127 billion in equity and 12,000 employees, SpaceX is among the world's largest space and exploration companies.

Who is the leader in space technology? ›

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is America's civil space program and the global leader in space exploration.

Why is NASA destroying the space station? ›

But why is NASA doing so? Well, the ISS has been functioning for 24 years and it isn't expected to last forever. NASA is engaging in impact prevention to destroy the ISS systematically so that it does not rain down on Earth like a giant asteroid, but splashes down in the ocean where it is put to bed forever.

Why is China making its own space station? ›

China has big ambitions for Tiangong. The station will have its own power, propulsion, life support systems and living quarters. It is also designed to provide refuelling power to China's new space telescope, called Xuntian, which will fly close to the space station next year.

What will replace International Space Station? ›

In December of 2021, NASA awarded three more contracts for “commercial destinations”: A team led by Nanoracks won $160 million to design its Starlab, a four-person station designed to be sent to orbit in a single launch that's now projected for 2028.

What planet is Elon Musk trying to colonize? ›

Elon Musk wants to make humans a multiplanetary species. Colonization of Mars has been the main goal of the entrepreneur's multi-billion dollar company SpaceX since its founding two decades ago.

Does Jeff Bezos want to colonize space? ›

But Bezos, a billionaire who made his fortune building Amazon into a global online marketplace but has dreamed of space travel since he was a child, has said that he believes almost religiously that sustaining the human race will require building space colonies — beginning on the moon — where millions can live and work ...

What planet is NASA trying to colonize? ›

The Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet.

How much are SpaceX astronauts paid? ›

$142,123. The estimated total pay for a Astronaut at SpaceX is $142,123 per year. This number represents the median, which is the midpoint of the ranges from our proprietary Total Pay Estimate model and based on salaries collected from our users. The estimated base pay is $112,676 per year.

Who has the most advanced space program? ›

1. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA. At the top of the list stands the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and for all the right reasons. NASA is a United States government agency responsible for science and technology in relation to air and space.

How much does SpaceX charge per astronaut? ›

SpaceX's CCtCap contract values each seat on a Crew Dragon flight to be between US$60–67 million, while the face value of each seat has been estimated by NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) to be around US$55 million.

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