Spaceports Are Where the Spaceships Go
Explore the Dawn of the Commercial Spaceport
By Paul Cianciolo, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine
As the world of aviation in the 21st century blossoms, we grow rapidly beyond the standard aerodrome. Our field of dreams sprouts airports, heliports, vertiports, and spaceports — all regulated by the FAA as part of the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.
Every “port” has its purpose in our aerospace ecosystem. One of the most unique is the commercial spaceport. It has evolved beyond its natural habitat of just launching a simple rocket into space. We now have vertical launches, horizontal launches, and reusable vehicle reentries competing for resources in our National Airspace System.
‘If You Build It, They Will Come.’
Who will come, you ask? That would be private industry vying for a piece of the commercial space transportation market. The satellite business is booming. Tourists, as space flight participants, are lining up. NASA focuses on its research and contracting to transport astronauts and cargo. Then there is the future business of cleaning up all the space debris swirling around up there and getting in the way. Suffice it to say; we need to ensure safety as we get into the groove of the current space race.
That safety starts on the ground. Unlike the certification that the FAA does for airmen and aircraft, commercial spaceports, launches, and reentries are instead licensed by the FAA. This distinction is intentional. Congress created the difference in Title 51, United States Code, because of the uniqueness of commercial space transportation compared to aviation. In the case of commercial space operators, the uninvolved public’s safety is paramount.
‘Who’s on First?’
The FAA regulates all private launch and reentry activities and the operations of launch and reentry sites. This task includes all commercial launches or reentries within U.S. borders or outside our borders when conducted by U.S. entities. All commercial space license types and procedures are in 14 CFR parts 413 through 460.
Congress also mandated that we “encourage, facilitate, and promote” commercial space transportation, which is the job of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. As part of that team, the Office of Spaceports is responsible for developing policies that promote infrastructure improvements and strengthen the competitiveness of U.S. spaceports. They support launch and reentry site licensing activities, provide technical assistance and guidance to existing and proposed spaceports, and collaborate with other countries developing launch or reentry sites of their own. The FAA aims to be a global leader in commercial space transportation safety.
“Other countries are investing in spaceport capacity and incentivizing private companies through grants in space transportation development,” notes Pam Underwood, FAA Office of Spaceports director.
“We are also starting to work with foreign governments to ensure that we can have a common level of safety, which should resonate with pilots because if you fly here or in another country, there are already agreements in place for international standards and safety practices for aviation. That’s where we need to go for space as well. Our responsibility as the FAA is to provide consistent safety, regardless of where these launches occur.”
‘Go the Distance.’
The U.S. has 14 licensed spaceports, which includes launch and reentry site operators. An additional three sites, two of which are operated by SpaceX and the other by Blue Origin, are designated exclusive-use and do not require a license from the FAA. The FAA oversees public safety at exclusive-use launch sites through the launch vehicle licenses that are required for all commercial space activities. There are also a few commercially-used federal ranges. See the spaceport and launch/reentry site map for locations.
Go to bit.ly/spaceports to get the details about each FAA-licensed commercial spaceport organized by state.
“Exclusive-use launch sites are ones owned and operated by a launch vehicle company for solely their own activities,” explains Underwood. “At FAA-licensed spaceports, any operator can conduct operations so long as they have an FAA license — and approval from the spaceport operator.”
Many factors are considered by operators when choosing the location of a launch including efficiency in reaching the intended orbit, safety of the uninvolved public, and cost.
“Locations like Alaska are perfect for polar orbits because you effectively take off, go north or south, and fly over the globe’s poles. Some satellite launches need to be closer to the equator, making launch locations such as Florida ideal. It all depends on the specific function or purpose of the satellite,” said Underwood. “Launches over the ocean are also very attractive because public safety concerns are mitigated — no one is out there. Also, you can usually access many different orbits from the ocean. You can even make polar orbits from many ocean locations.”
The types of launch and reentry operations conducted at a spaceport determine its license type. A spaceport can also be co-located with an airport, often called an air and space port.
“When point-to-point operations become a reality, it may be beneficial to have joint air and space ports. You could fly from your home airport to an air and space port and then hop on a launch vehicle to reach your final destination,” thinks Underwood.
Most horizontal launches start attached to a traditional airplane, so a runway is used. Nine FAA licensed spaceports are for horizontal launches. Those vehicles take off like an airplane, and their rocket ignition occurs somewhere away from the spaceport.
“There’s such a wide variety of launch vehicles that I’m not convinced the industry will solidify in on one type, like the airplane,” elaborates Underwood. “We’ve even got people that want to launch things from tubes shooting the vehicle into space! This means we may never have a standard spaceport design.”
Five of the 14 spaceports are purely for vertical launches — the traditional rocket that goes up.
Safety of the surrounding area, including any environmental impact, is the keystone to spaceport and reentry site license approvals. The 1970 National Environmental Policy Act ensures that commercial space transportation decision-makers understand the potential environmental effects of proposed licensing and permitting activities, disclose the potential impact on the human environment from the proposed activities, and evaluate reasonable alternatives to the proposed activities.
‘It’s a Moonshot Homerun!’
The world of spaceports also opens doors to innovation and jobs beyond the launch/reentry. At Houston Spaceport, for example, incubator space for startup companies working in space transportation is in the works. A manufacturer assembles spacesuits for NASA, and another company is building a lunar lander onsite. In addition, the construction of a facility to start work on the first commercial space station is underway.
At other spaceports, testing of rockets and other launch technologies and the manufacturing of parts are happening. Jobs in the space transportation field continue to grow.
‘Is This Heaven?’
There is now so much potential to safely enter the heavens thanks to the work of the FAA. However, pilot awareness around our nation’s spaceports is essential, especially in general aviation operations.
Always consult the NOTAMs (Notice to Air Missions) before a flight. Interfering with a launch or reentry is risky and costly to everyone involved. There is always the potential for rocket failure in the launch zone. A returning vehicle component, which could be a reentry vehicle or expendable stages/components, coming in hot-and-heavy is just a glider and can’t get out of your way.
Spaceports have various security measures in and around them too. The airspace may have permanent or temporary flight restrictions over and around the spaceport property. There are times when a launch may be delayed due to weather or another issue and rescheduled for the next day or even later that week. This is why reading the NOTAMs daily before operating your aircraft is essential.
‘This is Our Field of Dreams.’
Sometimes when you believe the impossible, the incredible comes true. With more than 500 launches and counting and an impeccable safety record, we are poised to lead the world through the commercial space race. The next phase in aerospace safety is upon us.
Paul Cianciolo is an associate editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran and an auxiliary airman with Civil Air Patrol.