Two Billion Upgrade Proposed for Cape Canaveral

United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy.

John McCarthy of Florida Today has a detailed look at proposed upgrades for the Eastern Range, one of the key elements in NASA’s new commercial approach to spaceflight. The Cape has been steadily losing the launch business for decades due to high costs, bureaucracy and antiquated equipment.

President Barack Obama’s plan to spend nearly $2 billion — including $429 million in 2011 — transforming Kennedy Space Center and the adjacent Air Force station into a “21st Century Launch Complex” could lure more of those commercial payloads back to Florida’s spaceport. That might mean fewer jobs at remote tracking locations such as Ascension Island as older equipment is retired, but it would create new jobs locally to support the increased launches. Ideally, the region would also capture some of the pre-launch work, such as assembling the satellites, that is now done elsewhere.

“I think there is no question that the Cape is as viable as any place in the world to compete for commercial launches,” Space Florida President Frank DiBello said. “What we need to do is streamline operations and make this an efficient and inexpensive place to launch.”The first step toward doing that, according to the Obama plan — which is still under intense scrutiny by Congress — is upgrading the Eastern Range, which provides tracking and safety services for all launches from the Cape and KSC…

The labor-intensive and bureaucratic process of being cleared to launch on the Eastern Range is more time consuming and expensive than at competing spaceports such as the Guiana Space Centre on the northeastern shore of South America or the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. And since the main mission of the range is to support military and NASA launches, commercial customers face potentially long delays if their rockets don’t launch on schedule.

“We have a pretty antiquated technology that is very labor intensive,” said Dale Ketcham, director of the University of Central Florida’s Spaceport Research and Technology Institute at KSC. “Is it what anybody would call ’21st century?’ No.”

Florida faces a tough international market, which is likely to grow even more competitive in this decade. By next year, Europe will have the ability to launch three types of rockets out of Kourou, including a new version of the highly reliable Russian Soyuz booster. The Russians are building a brand new spaceport in the Far East, which they hope to use to capture a larger share of the commercial market. This shift could open up Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for additional commercial launches.

China’s space program is growing, while India is looking to capture a greater share of the international market with its maturing effort. Other potential competitors include South Korea, which has developed its own rockets, and Brazil, which is looking to build a civilian spaceport adjacent to the military one it already operates. Even Mexico has created a space agency and is planning to construct a launch facility on the Yucatan Peninsula.

All that being said, the $2 billion dollar upgrade at the Cape is probably a good investment. The improvements are needed, for one.  And it will help ease the job losses on the Space Coast and serve as an incentive for commercial companies to locate there.

The Cape doesn’t necessarily have to be THE most competitive spaceport in the world on price; that could be difficult given the wage differentials with competitors like China and India. But, if it can offer first-rate launch services at competitive prices, Florida should be able to capture a healthy mix of military, civilian and commercial launches. If the Bigelow space station project actually gets off the ground, the Cape could end up with more missions than it could handle.

All this is still a proposal, so we’ll see how things go.