In praise of the Eastern Range
by Edward Ellegood
|The Eastern Range earned its bad reputation for the first ten years of commercial space launches, but the situation has vastly improved since then, with new policies, new practices, and new technologies.|
With a history dating back to 1940, the Eastern Range is the Air Force’s public safety corridor for space launches and missile tests. Extending from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and Kennedy Space Center (KSC)—collectively designated the Cape Canaveral Spaceport—to the South Atlantic, it uses ground-based, vehicle-based, and space-based tracking and telemetry systems to monitor launch and reentry operations, including a flight termination capability for when things go wrong.
Before the commercial launch industry started up 20 years ago, Eastern Range efficiency and costs were not an issue. Built to meet requirements from NASA, Navy, and Air Force programs, the Range was designed to be an extremely capable system, and keeping it humming required a standing army of contractors that had little incentive toward affordability.
When commercial launchers came along (mostly with rockets already developed for the Air Force), they didn’t need all of the Range’s expensive capabilities, and they certainly didn’t want to pay for a standing army of government contractors. But each commercial launch was billed for unexpected costs from these contractors and the government for range services, operational support, and safety reviews, with little visibility into the pricing and billing process and no way to reasonably forecast costs for later missions.
Those days are largely over. The Eastern Range earned its bad reputation for the first ten years of commercial space launches, but the situation has vastly improved since then, with new policies, new practices, and new technologies. I still hear complaints about the Range, though they come mostly from new users with hopes for orbital flight but no experience on any other orbital-access range. The barriers they face here will quite possibly be worse at any other location.
Consider these facts:
The Air Force, NASA, and Space Florida have never been busier in their dealings with prospective new users at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport. These federal agencies have stepped up their collaboration with Space Florida to bring new kinds of financial, infrastructure, and technical support to existing and prospective Eastern Range users.
Despite the growing number of existing and proposed FAA-licensed spaceports, only the Cape and Wallops Island can currently accommodate equatorial-orbit launches. And reports I’ve heard about Wallops Island suggest that the safety/regulatory and cost environment there offers no advantage over the Eastern Range.
So, you may ask: If things are so great now at the Cape, why is SpaceX looking at other sites?
|By pursuing its own enclave on the north end of KSC, Space Florida hopes it can fully serve its intended role as a spaceport authority with new independently operated launch pads for SpaceX and other users.|
As SpaceX outgrows their single-pad capacity at Launch Complex 40, other factors at the spaceport still make it a frustrating place for their expansion. The Air Force and NASA have a mission-assurance culture that encourages their increased involvement in day-to-day launch preparations for government missions. This can affect schedule and cost not only for the government missions but also for the next commercial customers in line. (This wouldn’t be a problem if SpaceX had a second pad at the Cape.)
Then there’s federal contracting and fair-wage laws, which add some costs on Air Force and NASA installations, and security requirements that make it difficult to accommodate foreign customers and employees.
These factors—which would exist at any government-run spaceport—have SpaceX searching for a single-user, company-owned alternative. The company seems content to serve its government customers from government launch sites, but believes purely commercial missions might be easier from a non-federal spaceport.
By pursuing its own enclave on the north end of KSC, Space Florida hopes it can fully serve its intended role as a spaceport authority with new independently operated launch pads for SpaceX and other users. Meanwhile, the Air Force and NASA continue down their own paths in the Cape’s accelerating evolution.
So what changes might we see in the future?
While the idea of a “fully funded range” (where no costs are directly passed along to the users) is similar to the approach used with FAA airspace management around airports, it has no chance of becoming a reality in the current budget environment.
Instead, I would recommend a more inclusive approach to spaceport management and decision making, allowing commercial users to participate on a committee to discuss concerns and strategic direction (many airports have these). This would facilitate a cultural shift that emphasizes continual improvement, with benchmarking that measures and rewards gains in efficiency and customer satisfaction.
As the pace of change at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport picks up, it’s a great time for new users to take a seat at the table and be a part of the exciting process of defining the future here.