by Mike Vogel
Updated 4 yearss ago
Congestion and Competition
The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County, which is in charge of the area’s launch schedule and safety, has been pushing to more than double annual launches under a “Drive for 48” a year slogan. Little-noticed changes help efficiency: SpaceX adopted an automated system to destroy its rockets if they go awry. An Air Force officer explained at a conference last year that the system eliminated the need for 96 government workers and cut the charge to the rocket-launching customer in half.
But the “Drive to 48” amounts to nearly one a week, a tough nut for a rocket range that accounts for nearly a quarter of the world’s launches but in most years hosts fewer than 20 launches. Last year, at the 45th Space Congress, the Air Force and private rocket companies aired their difficulties with speeding up launches — ship and plane encroachment on restricted areas, weather, scheduling conflicts.
There’s also a safety issue with having one rocket on a pad while another rocket launches. Blue Origin orbital launch site director Scott Henderson noted that designated “critical days” around a launch mean some types of construction aren’t allowed at area launch pads. Blue Origin at the time was working on launch complex 36 for its New Glenn rocket. In 10 of the prior 12 months, he said, more than half the work days had been “critical days.” “It’s nearly impossible to build a project under those kinds of constraints,” he said.
Nearly two dozen active spaceports around the globe are eager to pick up the business. The private space race has set off competition among states and nations to capture rocket makers and their launches. The United States alone now has 11 spaceports. Newcomers have pulled off recruiting coups; Texas, for example, won a SpaceX launch site, and New Mexico lured Virgin’s tourism and satellite businesses.
More states want in on the action. Georgia seeks to develop a spaceport just across the Florida line. Contrasting itself with Florida, Georgia touts itself as the only “non-federal range on the East Coast” — a reference to NASA’s and the Air Force’s sway over Florida launch governance.
Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello wants Florida to develop a commercial-only spaceport and for Congress to free Florida from the layers of various federal agencies and regulation that took root over the years. The Air Force and NASA, which have supported making the Cape hospitable to private ventures, already have “leaned forward about as far as they can go,” without congressional action, he says.
While the state tries to clear that bureaucratic nest, it has to work on upgrading its aging infrastructure at the Cape, a source of complaint from private companies. Unlike competing facilities in the launch marketplace, Florida’s facilities can be more than a half-century old. DiBello says efforts to create a “21st-century spaceport” with major infrastructure projects are ongoing. Space Florida has gotten $38.8 million from the Florida Department of Transportation to improve its infrastructure.
“This is not a time for Florida to unilaterally surrender,” DiBello says. “We want to be the global leader in enabling space commerce.”
Read more in the March issue.
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