CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla.—
Florida’s historic, 16,000-acre spaceport on the Eastern Seaboard is filling up with companies and partnerships as a new space age unfolds.
Launchpads that sat vacant for years are now stretched so thin that newcomers are referred to NASA’s neighboring Kennedy Space Center. While United Launch Alliance (ULA) assembles one of its Delta IV Heavy rockets at the Cape, Blue Origin’s growing facilities are under construction nearby. Cape Canaveral hosts five companies at its launch facilities, three more than it had a decade ago. Fifteen new companies have asked for launch property on the coast in the past year, compared to three in 2015 and zero in 2010. The Eastern Range in 2020 expects to hold more than three times the number of launches than it saw in 2010.
“Everyone wants to come to Cape Canaveral,” said Tom Eye, the plans and programs chief for the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. “If you look at our little ‘We’re Busy’ chart, there’s two vacant spots.”
What we’re calling ‘Range of the Future’ is all based on: How do we position ourselves to get after the warfighting requirements that we’re going to need from a joint capability?Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond
The installation’s disappearing real estate is a visible metric of the commercial race to space that is transforming how the Space Force manages launches across the country and is driving a plan to modernize those facilities known as “Range of the Future.”
The Space Force plans to update Cape Canaveral and its sister range at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in terms of both infrastructure and processes over the next decade, clearing the way to accommodate what could be daily launches for everything from manned spaceflight to military and commercial communications and surveillance payloads. Thanks to modern manufacturing techniques and multi-payload launches, the cost of launching hardware into space is plunging, and military-run launch facilities want to shoot systems into orbit as fast as the commercial sector can churn them out.
This is what the Space Force calls “on-demand, assured access to space.”
“What we’re calling ‘Range of the Future’ is all based on, ‘how do we position ourselves to get after the warfighting requirements that we’re going to need from a joint capability?’” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond last November. “I’m hoping to do this with less money. … With autonomy, you get to reduce some of that infrastructure, which I think will be very important and would also be a cost savings.”
A January 2019 Air Force Space Command slideshow laid out a three-phase approach to rolling out changes. First, top-priority projects—such as transitioning to a new safety system and overhauling how launches are scheduled and infrastructure upgrades paid for—would take place until 2023. From 2023 to 2024, the military would “continue focused development of architecture/infrastructure improvements” while settling into its new business practices. The slides dub 2024 and beyond the “era of U.S. spaceports,” using launch sites on-demand in the same way as airlines at a major airport.
“Range of the Future” offers the 45th Space Wing at Patrick and the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg the chance to reshape their relationship. Officials say the two bases are the closest they’ve ever been and are rethinking their roles as more companies come knocking on both coasts.
Col. Anthony Mastalir, 30th Space Wing boss, and Brig. Gen. Doug Scheiss, 45th Space Wing commander, are trying to better align their organizations to work more efficiently and to offer a unified storefront to anyone wanting to get to orbit.
“This is a really unique opportunity for us,” Mastalir said. “When a customer comes to … a U.S. Space Force range, it really shouldn’t matter whether it’s an Eastern Range or Western Range. That storefront should be similar. They should expect similar processes, similar capabilities.”
Col. Kris Barcomb, 30th Operations Group commander at Vandenberg, said standardizing safety protocols and environmental compliance and other standards will create an “even stronger customer-oriented model.”
“We believe that we can minimize a lot of the transaction barriers, a lot of the entry barriers for them,” he said. “We’re looking to find all those friction points together with the 45th to present … a menu of options and services to them and helping them grow their business model.”
The Space Force already provides customers with the basic necessities for launch, such as nitrogen, helium, power, and weather tracking. But it becomes more complicated when a company wants to bring their own systems, such as a telemetry dish, that might not work with the military’s existing electronics.
“Sometimes we can make modifications to support those customers, sometimes it’s easier for them to just bring their own,” Mastalir said. “We want to be able to create a range where anybody who wants to bring their own equipment can plug-and-play.”
The ranges’ most pressing need is a network-based communication system that would allow commercial companies’ tools to share data with the Space Force without running into encryption or other problems. Replacing the decades-old wired network would accommodate newer means of collecting telemetry data, such as mobile vans equipped to operate anywhere on the range, rather than from a sole fixed spot.
Some Airmen will change their jobs as communications specialists to handle cyber defense, Scheiss said.
Challenges and Opportunities
Adopting autonomous flight safety systems (AFSS) to rockets poses another big opportunity for space launch stakeholders. AFSS, which automatically destroys the launch vehicle if it flies off course instead of requiring a human to do the job, will be required on all rockets by 2023. The system can cut down on launch prep time, as well as resource and staffing needs.
“That’s going to be critical, as we’re driving future customers to adopt that type of AFSS structure, [it] allows us to bring down a lot of aging equipment, reduce our footprint on the range, and then divert those resources into more attractive options for commercial providers and government launchers,” Mastalir said.
The 2019 AFSPC presentation noted that when considering divesting certain hardware and software to reinvest that money in range modernization, the service needed to be “careful with this thought since [the Air Force] does not reinvest like this.”
Scheiss pointed to changes to everyday processes that can help hit the higher launch goal, such as creating templates showing where certain rockets are expected to travel so that Airmen can standardize safety checks. It’s also becoming easier to schedule launches as companies become more open with each other. Instead of keeping their work tightly under wraps, the wing has a software system that lets companies deconflict their prep work with each other and claim time slots for upcoming launches.
Changing to a range that heavily relies on automation and remote operations—without as much manual equipment monitoring and reconfiguration—will help cut the time it takes to prepare a range for the next launch from 72 hours to four. Scheiss said the number of launches at the Cape is more important than the size of the rocket, since smaller payloads and rockets can take off more often than larger ones.
Patrick and Cape Canaveral are relying on that gradual shift to accomplish a launch manifest with as many as 51 events this year, and even more in the years to come.
“It’s not just, ‘can I launch a rocket once a week?’” Scheiss said. “It’s, ‘can I launch a rocket when anybody needs me to launch it?’ That could be two days apart or one day apart from each other.”
The ranges have also adjusted to a world where rockets don’t just blast off, but also return. Cape Canaveral works with organizations such as the Coast Guard to watch the area where rocket parts are returning and assist if something goes wrong. Right now, SpaceX is still the only company recovering its boosters, but the industry is broadly moving toward reusable launch vehicles.
“That was a big culture shift,” Scheiss said. “How do we make sure that we’re doing public safety and resource protection as that comes back? It kind of extends the launch a little bit. … We’ll continue to do that as others bring [theirs] on.”
All companies with reusable rockets will share the same landing zone on land or recover their systems on ships operating in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Space Force is rapidly running out of room for other commercial companies wishing to work on the Cape. Eye said the service is looking to NASA to help work around environmental concerns and develop some more property on the Space Coast. Officials are eyeing other ways of sharing real estate, such as Northrop Grumman building its new OmegA rocket on the same pad as NASA’s Space Launch System for manned spaceflight.
Space Florida, a state-run aerospace economic development organization, is turning one complex at the Cape into a multiuse facility where companies could show up within a day of launch, set up their rocket, shoot it, and leave. This kind of sharing could be a game-changer—provided assurances can be met.
“If there is an anomaly like they had on [launch complex] 40 with SpaceX and the thing blows up, it’s going to damage that pad,” Eye said. “When the pad is damaged, then your program is not going to go. So, where are you going to launch your rocket from?”
Easing Support Stress
Vandenberg’s launch schedule is quieter than Cape Canaveral’s. It currently hosts United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for national security space launches and could bring in Blue Origin or Northrop Grumman for government launches, if they win contracts under a major Space Force procurement effort. At least six commercial companies have approached Vandenberg about launching from the California coast, Mastalir said. Firefly Aerospace, a company that takes small to medium payloads to orbit, is on this year’s manifest.
Vandenberg plans to host 14 launches this year. Growing the number of launches on base property promises to strain the Space Force’s supply of security personnel, firefighters, and others. Airmen have to close roads, evacuate people, handle fire hazards, and manage other public safety tasks for each launch.
The possibility of overburdening those support personnel concerns Mastalir more than the number of different providers that could seek their help. Base officials are working on a master plan that could set up a commercial zone outside their gates, so that additional launch customers wouldn’t rely as heavily on Space Force resources.
“There’s a lot of give and take in terms of maximizing the capacity of the Western Range,” Mastalir said. “It’s something that we’re very conscious of—not for today’s mission, I don’t have that problem this year. But, I think there may be a day in the future where we are going to have to understand, ‘how can we increase capacity?’”
He doesn’t see a limit to the number of companies that the 30th Space Wing could bring in, particularly with the new network and safety equipment that would allow Airmen to turn the range over faster between launches—no need to spend time customizing things like the data-transmission fibers setup or managing command-destruct systems.
Vandenberg wants to bring in more companies whose rockets are in earlier stages of development, too. The base is turning Space Launch Complex 8 into an incubator where companies can mature and fly their designs. It will host Defense Department tests first, but eventually could be a dual-use complex.
“If you have a company that is using [venture capitalist] money and trying to make ends meet to deliver a product to earn more funding, very cost-conscious … that’ll be a big benefit for them,” Mastalir said.
Added Barcomb: “If we can facilitate them while meeting government objectives, but also facilitate their access so that they can focus on the development on their own … intellectual property, their technologies, without having to invest in infrastructure and power and roads and those kinds of things, then it’s kind of a win-win.”
The space wings could revamp their training to work with new aspects of the range. The 30th Space Wing already has a small virtual reality lab—which Barcomb describes as “cool,” but “not in a fully applicable stage”—that can help train Airmen for mission-assurance processes that take place only occasionally. The wing can also design its own mock parts for training, instead of asking a company to build them at a higher cost.
Airmen from Vandenberg sometimes go to Patrick for training, and the two bases work together when the secretive X-37 space plane returns to Earth. Scheiss believes the space wings will need to update their training as they move under the Space Force’s new Systems Command, which is expected to lead acquisition for the service. Space operators will still need to earn launch experience while working with the acquirers, he said.
“As we get to [AFSS] and others, we won’t have the need for as many space operators, but we still want them to be knowledgeable in this mission,” he said. “We may have to change a little bit [of] what they do to a more mission-assurance kind of aspect, of checking out the range, make sure the range is ready to go.”
For companies, the biggest concern is that the Space Force be able to meet the launch schedule they want.
ULA Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno said his company is very happy with the support it receives from the range. Instead of pushing for a particular new technology, he simply wants the government to stay on top of maintaining its infrastructure.
“As we look into the future, there may be a higher launch tempo, especially to deal with space as a warfighting domain,” Bruno said. “When we look into the future of the pure commercial launch market, the forecasts still don’t show that. They show a flat and anemic market for about the next seven to eight years. But if the Air Force needs more launches, then we would love for the range to be able to keep up.”
For now, Bruno noted, ranges can’t launch two rockets on the same day and can’t conduct certain operations on side-by-side pads at the same time.
“If my competitor’s on the pad next door conducting a hot firing of their engines or launching their rocket, I cannot have my personnel on my pad doing preparations for my next launch,” he said. “What I look for in the future is their ability to be flexible and agile and keep up with the demands so that we’re not in each other’s way.”
Other launch providers did not respond to requests for comment.
For future projects, the 45th Space Wing wants Congress to approve a proposal to let private companies pay for infrastructure changes on government-owned ranges. When Blue Origin wanted to widen the roadway at the Cape a few years ago, the government balked. Lawmakers said funding from contractors would have to be funneled through Capitol Hill’s regular budget process, instead of going directly to the Department of the Air Force.
Wing officials think creating a revolving fund can pay for projects like the communications network upgrades at the center of the “Range of the Future” plan.
“It’s just a matter of getting it through the wickets from the DOD into the system,” Eye said. “Now’s the time, because it’s so opened up now with the focus on space, whether it’s the Space Force or what’s happening in space.”
Because companies manage the facilities they lease from the government, the revolving fund could also become a key tool in adapting the private property to rising sea levels along the Florida coast.
As range customers diversify, so will the places they want to go.
Vandenberg launches most of its rockets south into polar orbit, while Patrick is better positioned to launch east to reach geosynchronous orbit. Geographically, both positions help ensure rockets launch over water, rather than land, minimizing risk to people in case of an accident.
Patrick is now considering returning to polar orbit launches, which it handled in the 1960s, based on interest from commercial customers. It’s cheaper for a company that is already set up at the Cape to stay there instead of investing at Vandenberg for polar launches as well, and it would offer more options and some redundancy for satellite proliferation plans.
Vandenberg officials are thinking about taking on the kinds of launches more common at Patrick, as well. Instead of flying over the Rocky Mountains, rockets could fly south and make a sharp turn to get to an equatorial orbit. That approach uses much more fuel when traveling from California, compared to the more direct route from Florida, but could alleviate launch demands on the Cape.
“At some point, you’ll have a hard time getting on the [Eastern Range] manifest,” Mastalir said. “There’s only so many things you can launch in a day, and so I think we’re a good option for some NASA missions. … Fast forward into the future, and we’ve colonized Mars and we’re starting to build out infrastructure there, that’s where I think there’s different options where we would come into play.”
Talk about Mars no longer seems far-fetched. In the space community, the excitement is palpable, reminiscent of that earlier, awe-inspiring era when Americans first set foot on the Moon, and crowds cheered up and down Cocoa Beach, Fla.
“You can see the buzz. You see people lining up again along the roads,” Eye said. “It’s kind of like back in the ’60s. … We’re coming back into a busy time. It’s going to be a good time.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on May 1 at 10:48 a.m. EDT with a corrected map.