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Falocn 9 AsiaSat 6 launch
A time-lapse exposure of the Falcon 9 launch of AsiaSat 6 on September 7. SpaceX plans to move future launches of commercial satellites to its own launch site in Texas. (credit: SpaceX)

Another wakeup call for the Cape Canaveral Spaceport


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SpaceX’s decision to build a new launch complex in Texas was not unexpected, but it should drive federal and state officials to re-think their efforts to boost commercial competitiveness at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport. Over the past few decades there have been dozens of initiatives to address the Cape’s problems, some bringing real improvements, but SpaceX’s latest move highlights the fact that the changes have been too slow, and probably too timid.

Launch companies now find themselves having to deal with multiple well-intentioned bureaucracies for different aspects of their operations at the spaceport.

Some consider the SpaceX move a wakeup call for Florida, but the same was true when Orbital Sciences picked Wallops Island for Antares, and when Virgin Galactic picked New Mexico. What’s needed is a hard look at the underlying issues that continue to raise concerns among the companies looking to launch from Florida. Here are five:

Concern #1: Too many cooks

The best thing about launching from the Cape Canaveral Spaceport is all of the resources and support available from NASA, the Air Force, Space Florida, and the FAA. The worst thing about launching from here is all of the resources and support available from NASA, the Air Force, Space Florida, and the FAA. Some companies need these resources, others want nothing to do with them.

Launch companies now find themselves having to deal with multiple well-intentioned bureaucracies for different aspects of their operations at the spaceport: for facilities access, security, ground safety, flight safety, and more. The situation could be streamlined if the bureaucracies were not overly concerned with self-preservation and turf protection in these times of shrinking government budgets. Optimizing the role and influence of some of these agencies would do much to establish the Cape as a more industry-friendly spaceport.

Some observers believe the Air Force and NASA should become tenants of an independently managed spaceport (either by a state- or federally-empowered transportation authority), operating alongside commercial users, with the FAA responsible for enforcing flight safety rules.

NASA, however, believes it can turn the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) into a commercially competitive, federally managed spaceport. And the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, while supportive of commercial needs, plays only a minor role in Air Force space policy, meaning decisions affecting commercial competitiveness are often made by authorities in the Pentagon, Colorado Springs, or Los Angeles.

Concern #2: Range access and scheduling

SpaceX wanted autonomy for its commercial launches at a standalone spaceport allowing 24/7 operations. There will certainly be external constraints to operations at their Texas site, but SpaceX won’t have to worry about a federal agency landlord, or another operator’s nearby activities encroaching on their plans.

The Eastern Range is based on 1990s technology, incrementally upgraded as allowed by constrained budgets. It remains incapable of the airport-like operations envisioned by optimistic planners.

At the Cape Canaveral Spaceport, multiple launch programs must depend on the Air Force to juggle requests for launch dates, backup launch dates, wet dress rehearsal dates, range maintenance and upgrades, and other operations that require range resources or clearance. Even Navy offshore missile tests are factored in. The impact of so many users angling for access is felt by companies like SpaceX. The resulting delays of hours, days, or weeks add up and can be frustrating and expensive for launch providers and their payload customers.

Concern #3: Range technology

Yes, the Eastern Range has improved itself dramatically over the past two decades. Turnaround between launch readiness can now be measured in hours instead of days, and the costs passed along to customers are as low as would be available at any other current spaceport. But the Eastern Range is based on 1990s technology, incrementally upgraded as allowed by constrained budgets. It remains incapable of the airport-like operations envisioned by optimistic planners.

To support a future defined by multiple concurrent operations—orbital and suborbital, launch and re-entry, piloted and autonomous, manned and unmanned, vertical and horizontal—the Eastern Range needs revolutionary, not evolutionary, change. The path ahead calls for autonomous flight safety systems and closer collaboration with the FAA, which is developing its NextGen air traffic management system to include some space-capable features.

Meanwhile, keep a close eye on what SpaceX develops or procures to support its Texas range safety requirements. It will need to meet the basic requirements laid out by the FAA (stricter versions of the Air Force’s regulations), but probably at a much lower cost than the Eastern Range’s legacy systems. Also, watch what NASA does in determining whether the Air Force will continue to have flight safety authority for commercial launches from KSC property.

Concern #4: Mission assurance support

In the pre-EELV 1990s, the Air Force and Navy had two very different approaches to launching their national security satellites. The Air Force managed the entire process with onsite military, civil service, and contractor personnel, supporting the rockets and payloads as they progressed through each step toward delivery to orbit. This active oversight of launch vehicle preparations and launch site operations provided assurance that everything was being done according Air Force procedures.

The Navy, meanwhile, procured their launch services on a commercial basis, entrusting the launch companies to manage the launch operations with much less mission assurance support and oversight from the military. The Navy basically took control of the satellites after they were commercially delivered to orbit. This all changed with EELV, which forced all national security missions to use the Air Force’s launch services procurement and management approach.

NASA’s mission assurance approach is similar, though less intensive, for its government payloads. In part because they cannot purchase commercial insurance, agencies with the personnel and resources to support every step of the launch campaign will have a tendency to do so. Their people want to be involved (whether needed or not) to make sure things are being done right. The launch service provider is obligated to accommodate these customer representatives, although their involvement often impacts mission schedule and cost.

Concern #5: Customer access

In discussions with SpaceX prior to their August 5 AsiaSat 8 launch, the company conveyed to me what they and their customers believe is a major impediment at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport: difficulty gaining access for international customers and partners. AsiaSat, a Hong Kong-based company, described their frustrations in this article before their subsequent AsiaSat 6 launch. AsiaSat probably had over a hundred guests attending the launch (and spending time and money in the local economy) and SpaceX had to spend considerable time and energy arranging for their access to viewing areas on the spaceport.

A more inclusive approach to spaceport management and decision making is needed, a “cultural shift that emphasizes continual improvement, with benchmarking that measures and rewards gains in efficiency and customer satisfaction.”

Until very recently, it has taken weeks or months for the Air Force and NASA to approve access for foreign nationals, only a handful of whom might require access to sensitive areas to service their payloads. These foreign nationals ended up being treated as a security threat—or at least a bureaucratic burden—rather than valued customers.

Air Force and NASA folks might say this is a relatively minor issue solved with a little advance planning by the launch providers, but the payload customer’s guest list can be very fluid, and can change dramatically with launch scrubs and schedule delays, making this a huge logistical headache for both the launch provider and the payload customer. I understand that some major improvements have been implemented by the Air Force in recent weeks, but (aside from self-enforcement of ITAR requirements) this could become a non-issue for SpaceX in Texas.

I wrote an essay last year praising recent improvements at the Cape (see “In praise of the Eastern Range”, The Space Review, September 9, 2013), and I still believe we have the world’s most capable spaceport. But my conclusion remains valid too: that a more inclusive approach to spaceport management and decision making is needed, a “cultural shift that emphasizes continual improvement, with benchmarking that measures and rewards gains in efficiency and customer satisfaction.”

Maybe the SpaceX wakeup call will actually wake some people up this time.


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