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Cape Canaveral
While the Eastern Range has developed a bad reputation for being difficult and expensive to use, that reputation doesn’t reflect current operations there. (credit: USGS)

In praise of the Eastern Range

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We’ve all heard the criticisms: too much red tape, too expensive, not friendly to commercial operators. But are these decades-old complaints about the Eastern Range still true? As a Cape-watcher for over 20 years, I think the answer is no, though there is still room for improvement. Let me explain why.

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 Eastern Range is no longer tied to the expensive collection of ground-based radars it used a decade ago. Space-based tracking and telemetry is quickly becoming the norm, and new lower-cost vehicle-based autonomous flight termination systems are being qualified for commercial use on expendable rockets. Costs for these services are now very stable and predictable and represent only a small fraction of a company’s overall launch costs.
  • Technology upgrades and standardization at the Eastern Range have expanded its throughput for launches and rehearsal operations. Before modernization, it generally took about a week to reconfigure the Range from supporting one kind of rocket to another. Now it takes only a day or two, significantly expanding the availability of launch dates.
  • Today’s Range scheduling process gives equal priority to commercial missions. Contrary to popular myth, no military mission has ever preempted a commercial one from its scheduled date for national security reasons.
  • Substantial Air Force budget cuts over the past five years have forced the 45th Space Wing to eliminate non-essential services and streamline other processes at CCAFS. And per federal law, the Air Force now covers the majority of fixed and recurring costs and only requires commercial users to chip in for what they need for their launches. Because the Air Force carries these costs, it can actually be more expensive to launch from other spaceports where the user is required to pay the entire bill.
  • The Eastern Range’s safety standards have been adopted by the FAA for use at other spaceports. But when applied by the FAA at these other sites, they are more rigidly enforced as federal regulations. At the Eastern Range, the Air Force has consistently been able to tailor the safety requirements to meet the unique needs of new users.
  • Having an abundance of high-end technical capabilities for test-oriented Navy, NASA, and Air Force missions, the Range is able to provide expanded services in an à la carte fashion for commercial users. Sophisticated modeling and analysis tools and other services are available by-the-drink for mission assurance and anomaly investigations.

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?

  • More Air Force and NASA investment in range safety technologies that will continue to drive down Eastern Range costs, including autonomous flight termination systems.
  • The recently passed RACE for Space Act will facilitate previously disallowed non-federal co-investment in spaceport and Range infrastructure with the Air Force to meet shared commercial and government needs.
  • Changes in law or policy are being considered to allow agencies to more easily transfer federal launch infrastructure and facilities to Space Florida and commercial users.
  • NASA is considering a legal shift that would allow commercial launches from KSC to use non-Air Force (FAA or NASA) public safety oversight, potentially allowing alternative technologies for flight safety from launch pads LC-39 A and B.
  • Driven by federal budget pressures, the Air Force is considering a wide range of cost-saving changes at the Cape and the Eastern Range, including transferring more spaceport management responsibilities to corporate partners or a public-private entity like Space Florida, and possibly a shift in Range responsibility to the FAA.

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.