Spaceports, Spaceports, Everywhere a Spaceport (But Very Little to Launch)

Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center
Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

For a country that had a mere 13 orbital launches last year and a handful of suborbital ones, the United States certainly has an embarrassments of riches in terms of places from which to launch.

The nation has 18 launch sites and spaceports in eight states and one foreign country (Marshall Islands). That doesn’t include Sea Launch, a company that launches from an ocean platform in international waters using a U.S. based platform. And if that wasn’t already enough, there are 10 more proposed facilities that are under consideration or being actively pursued by different entities.

So, whenever companies can actually start increasing the rates for orbital and suborbital flights, the country’s ready to accommodate it.  In the meantime, we’ve got a lot of underutilized infrastructure.

U.S. launch facilities and spaceports. (Credit: FAA)

The map above and table below provide details on America’s launch sites and spaceports. Both are taken from the FAA’s Annual Compendium of Commercial Space Transportation: 2012. I added an entry in the table for Blue Origin’s facility in Texas.

Launch SiteOperator State/
Type of Launch SiteTypes of Launches Supported Currently Available for Commercial OperationsFAA License First Issued/
California SpaceportSpaceport Systems InternationalCaliforniaCommercialOrbitalYes 1996/
Cape Canaveral SpaceportSpace FloridaFloridaCommercialOrbital/
Cape Canaveral Air Force StationU.S. Air ForceFloridaGovernmentOrbitalSLC-41 (Atlas V)
SLC-37B (Delta IV)
SLC-40 (Falcon 9)
Cecil Field SpaceportJacksonville Aviation AuthorityFloridaCommercialSuborbitalYes 2010/
Edwards Air Force BaseU.S. Air ForceCaliforniaGovernmentSuborbitalNoN/A
Kennedy Space CenterNASAFloridaGovernmentOrbitalNo N/A
Kodiak Launch ComplexAlaska Aerospace CorporationAlaskaCommercialOrbital/
Mid-Atlantic Regional SpaceportVirginia Commercial Space Flight AuthorityVirginiaCommercialOrbitalYes1997/
Mojave Air and Space PortMojave Air and Space PortCaliforniaCommercialSuborbitalYes2004/
Oklahoma SpaceportOklahoma Space Industry Development AuthorityOklahomaCommercialSuborbitalYes 2006/
Pacific Missile Range FacilityU.S. NavyHawaiiGovernmentSuborbitalNoN/A
Poker Flat Research RangeUniversity of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical InstituteAlaskaUniversitySuborbitalFive pads available for suborbital launchesN/A
Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test SiteU.S. ArmyRepublic of the Marshall IslandsGovernmentOrbital/
Omelek Island launch padN/A
Spaceport AmericaNew Mexico Spaceport AuthorityNew MexicoCommercialSuborbitalYes2008/
Vandenberg Air Force BaseU.S. Air ForceCaliforniaGovernmentOrbital/
SLC-2 (Delta II)
SLC-3E (Altas V)
SLC-4E (Falcon 9;
Falcon Heavy)
SLC-6 (Delta IV)
SLC-8 (Minotaur)
SLC-576E (Taurus)
Van DornBlue OriginTexasPrivate Test FacilitySuborbitalNoUnknown
Wallops Flight FacilityNASAVirginiaGovernmentOrbital/
Six pads available for suborbital launchesN/A
White Sands Missile RangeU.S. ArmyNew MexicoGovernmentSuborbitalNoN/A

The 18 launch sites are a little misleading because of the co-location of government and commercial launch facilities. For example, the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Spaceport and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are all located in one area. The same goes for Wallops Flight Facility and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia, and Vandenberg Air Force Base and the California Spaceport in the Golden State.

As a result, it is more like 14 locations (broadly defined) where American launches take place. That number is one more than the U.S. total of 13 orbital launches last year. Twelve of those flights took place from two sites — Vandenberg Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The other flight was the air-launch of a Pegasus rocket over the Marshall Islands.

Some of these launch facilities and spaceports are inactive. The Oklahoma Spaceport at Burns Flat has been empty for years since Rocketplane Global left the state and subsequently went bankrupt. Edwards Air Force Base is also inactive at the current time.

Mojave Air and Space Port, where several suborbital and orbital space vehicles are under development, has not hosted a flight into space since SpaceShipOne landed on Oct. 4, 2004. That could soon change, however. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is set to begin powered test flights in the coming months, with the hope of reaching space by the end of the year. XCOR is also scheduled to begin flights of its Lynx suborbital space plane in Mojave later in this year, although that version will not be capable of flying into space.

New Mexico officials are anxiously awaiting the completion of SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program, after which Virgin Galactic will begin commercial operations at Spaceport America near Las Cruces. Virgin Galactic is the spaceport’s anchor and only tenant thus far. Virgin officials are hopeful that commercial missions could begin in 2014.

Cecil Field in Florida has an FAA license for suborbital flights, but it, too, is waiting for the the development of suborbital vehicles that might one day fly from there.  Unlike Spaceport America, however, Cecil Field is an active airport with many operators and tenants, so the wait does not pose any significant problems.

XCOR is considering flying from Cecil Field in the future. The company also has plans to set up a production facility in Brevard County, and it has its eye on the Space Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center as an operating base. Federal officials are currently weighing ideas for turning SLF into a private-public partnership for a range of air- and spacecraft.

Another Mojave-based company, Stratolaunch Systems, is considering launching rockets from the SLF. The company is building a massive carrier aircraft that will air launch a rocket that will place medium-sized payloads into orbit.

Stratolaunch launches are still a few years away. Up in Virginia, officials at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) are gearing up for a busy year. Orbital Sciences Corporation is set to make the initial flights of its new Antares rocket and Cygnus freighter, the latter of which is designed to take cargo to the International Space Station. Successful flights will be a major boost for Virginia’s space sector.

More on the Way

Additional spaceports and launch sites are now under consideration or active development in ten locations in five states and Puerto Rico. Four of the launch locations are in Texas, two in Florida, and one each in Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

The table below is derived from the FAA’s Annual Compendium of Commercial Space Transportation: 2012. I’ve added entries for the Camden County Spaceport in Georgia and the proposed Shiloh launch facility in Florida.

Proposed Launch Site/
BrownsvilleSpaceXTexasSpaceX is exploring the proposed site for conducting commercial launches
Camden County SpaceportCamden County Joint Development AuthorityGeorgiaCounty officials are exploring the development of a spaceport and vertical launch facility at an old rocket-engine testing site. An existing airport would be re-located to the site for possible use for suborbital flights.
Ellington FieldCity of HoustonTexasThe City of Houston has begun a feasibility study of using the airport at Ellington Field to support a wide range of commercial space activities.
Front Range SpaceportFront Range Airport AuthorityColoradoThis proposed suborbital spaceport is located just east of the Denver metropolitan area. FAA AST awarded the State of Colorado a STIM grant for an environmental assessment in preparation for the launch site application process.
Midland SpaceportCity of MidlandTexasThe City of Midland is in the process of applying for a launch site license. XCOR signed an agreement in July 2012 to be a tenant at the spaceport.
Roosevelt Roads Naval StationPuerto RicoPuerto RicoThis proposed spaceport is located at the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico.
Spaceport KalaeloaHawaii Office of Aerospace DevelopmentHawaiiA funding bill to support an application for a launch site license became law on July 16, 2009. FAA AST awarded the State of Hawaii a STIM grant for an environmental assessment in preparation for the launch site application process.
ShilohSpace FloridaFloridaFlorida requested that NASA turn over title to a 150-acres of land on the northern side of the Kennedy Space Center for the development of a commercial launch facility intended for use by SpaceX and other tenants. NASA has rejected the request and said alternatives to handing over the title for the land are possible. State officials are working to reverse the decision.
Titusville-Cocoa Beach AirportTitusville-Cocoa Beach AirportFloridaThis proposed spaceport would support commercial SRV activities.
West Texas SpaceportPecos County/West Texas Spaceport Development CorporationTexasTo develop this proposed spaceport, Blue Origin would build upon test site infrastructure established for NASA/USAF rocket testing. A Pecos County/West Texas Spaceport Development Corporation seat remains active on the county board.

SpaceX is driving some of this activity. In addition to the Brownsville and Shiloh locations, the company has also looked at sites in Georgia, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Although no one has confirmed the exact locations, it is possible that the Camden County, Roosevelt Roads and Kalaeloa sites have been considered.

The Midland Spaceport will be located at an existing international airport. It is a result of XCOR’s decision to re-locate its research and development operations to the West Texas city, which has offered an $10 million incentives package.

The Front Range Spaceport plan is a bit of a puzzlement. The goal is to be a center for point-to-point rocket transportation, first between cities and eventually continents.
Board a plane in Sydney and fly to Colorado in an hour, then transfer to nearby Denver International Airport (DIA) for a domestic flight.

It’s a terrific vision; the problem is that most serious experts believe that long-distance point-to-point travel is still a couple of decades away.  In the meantime, the close proximity of busy DIA doesn’t make the spaceport especially attractive for suborbital providers.

Looking Ahead

At the present time, the United States has a serious mismatch between its launch facilities and its launch capabilities. This is a result of a number of factors, including NASA’s decision to end the space shuttle program before it had a successor in place and delays in getting new reusable suborbital vehicles ready to fly. The low launch rate also reflects America’s lack of competitiveness in booking commercial satellite flights.

However, there are a number of positive signs that things are beginning to turn around. On the suborbital side, test flights this year by Virgin Galactic and XCOR will begin to demonstration the potential of this new chapter in space exploration. We also can expect to see continued progress from other suborbital companies, including Masten Space Systems, Armadillo Aerospace and Blue Origin.

Within a few years, we could be seeing daily suborbital flights carrying tourists and scientific experiments to the nearest reaches of space. Some companies might fly to space several times a day. That would bring about a significant change in our perceptions about space, even if the flights only go 70 miles up. The heavens would seem accessible at last.

There are also a number of companies developing new launch vehicles for satellites of all weight classes. There are a lot of different efforts underway aimed at providing affordable launches for small-, cube-, nano- and micro-sats. If they are successful, the days of building a satellite quickly and then waiting months or years to launch it will become a thing of the past.

In terms of larger payloads, SpaceX plans to increase its launch rate beginning this year as it continues to delivery cargo to the International Space Station and begins to work through an ever growing manifest of commercial and government satellites. SpaceX is, at present, the only domestic rocket company capable of competing for international launch contracts.

Orbital Sciences Corporation will follow SpaceX in demonstrating the ability to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and then a begin a series of  eight commercial resupply missions that will add to America’s launch total. The company is also marketing Antares commercially.

Getting Americans back into space on our own vehicles is going to take a little bit longer. Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX are all working on transports under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The earliest any of them will make test flights with a crew aboard is 2015.  Commercial service is not expected to begin before 2017.

If NASA succeeds in playing midwife to a commercially competitive orbital transportation industry, that will open the door to what could be a real game changer:  Bigelow Aerospace’s private space stations.  A pair of those facilities operating in orbit successfully by the end of the decade would generate dozens of launches per year.  The annual launch rates would dwarf anything we’ve seen to date.

At that point, the country would probably end up being short of spaceports and launch facilities. But, that would be a nice change of pace.