ORLANDO, Fla. — As the number of licensed commercial launches continues to soar, pressure is mounting on the nation’s major launch sites in California and Florida to find solutions for congestion. With the Federal Aviation Administration licensing more than triple the number of launches between 2020 and 2023, spaceport operators are exploring alternative locations for orbital launches to keep up with demand.
During a presentation at the annual meeting of the Global Spaceport Alliance, Pam Underwood, the director of the FAA’s Office of Spaceports, revealed that the number of licensed launches is expected to hit 111 in fiscal year 2024. This significant growth has predominantly occurred at federal ranges, such as Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, which accounted for 78% of licensed launches in 2023.
One of the key challenges for inland spaceports is their inability to host orbital launches due to range safety issues. However, efforts are underway to change that. Spaceport America in New Mexico is striving to secure the necessary funding for an “Orbital Launch Challenge” prize, which would award $2 million to the first company to receive an FAA license for, and attempt, an orbital launch from their facility.
According to Scott McLaughlin, the executive director of Spaceport America, the focus on major launch sites raises concerns about the safety of launches over populated areas. He emphasized the need to prioritize safety and proposed the $2 million competition to New Mexico legislators, although securing the funding this year seems unlikely.
During discussions at the Space Mobility conference, Ted Mercer, head of the Virginia Spaceport Authority, expressed skepticism about the near-term feasibility of inland vertical launches, citing the importance of establishing a consistent track record of successful launches. Similarly, John Steinmeyer, executive director for Assured Access to Space at the Space Force’s Space Systems Command, highlighted the significant policy implications and the need for demonstrating reliability in inland launch capabilities.
However, for Equatorial Launch Australia, launching from an inland spaceport is already a feasible option. Michael Jones, the executive chairman of the company, revealed that they have identified trajectories that enable safe launches from the Arnhem Space Centre in Australia’s Northern Territory without flying over populated areas for missions to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).
The increasing demand for commercial launches, coupled with the limitations of major launch sites, is driving the search for innovative solutions to accommodate orbital launches from inland spaceports, presenting both challenges and opportunities for the space industry’s future.