Space Force should consider alternative launch sites, lawmakers say

Space Force should consider alternative launch sites, lawmakers say

As U.S. launch rates surge at the Defense Department’s two coastal ranges, House lawmakers are pushing the military to consider alternative sites for sending space payloads to orbit.

In the House Armed Services Committee’s draft fiscal 2025 defense policy bill, lawmakers raised concerns about the ability of DOD’s most in-demand spaceports at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Space Force Base in California to meet military and commercial capacity needs in the coming years.

“Given the emerging needs of department and commercial launch operators, the [National Security Space Launch] program must meet requirements that enable payload processing and launch beyond the current NSSL-capable locations on the Western and Eastern ranges,” the committee said.

The U.S. launched 103 missions in 2023 — up from 76 the previous year. According to a May 8 report from the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, DC think tank, two thirds of all U.S. launches last year lifted off from Cape Canaveral.

“The sharp increase in launches from this location has raised questions about how many launches the location can support without undue impact on the support services provided by the US Space Force and the busy air corridor that passes through this region,” the report said.

That growing demand has driven the Space Force to explore options to increase the number of launches its existing ranges can support and invest in the infrastructure at those bases through an initiative called Spaceport of the Future.

But lawmakers also want them to consider the feasibility of launching NSSL payloads from other ranges as soon as 2025. The bill lists potential alternative sites, including Wallops Island in Virginia, Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska, and Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The committee also wants the service to assess whether these locations could launch missions like GPS or the Space Development Agency’s missile tracking and data transport constellations. And it wants details on what additional facilities would be needed to process military payloads.

Further, the committee is concerned that the Eastern and Western ranges are vulnerable to natural disasters and could become targets for adversaries in a conflict. The bill orders a review of those potential threats.

In a separate launch-related provision, the committee directs the Space Force to consider options for modernizing the waterfront facilities at federal spaceports, which are used to transport some rockets between the Eastern and Western ranges. Rough waters can put those launch vehicles at risk — especially during the loading and unloading process.

“The committee believes that the modernization of waterfront facilities at federal ranges, specifically where space launch vehicles are received, is critical to national security and the protection of significant investments made in each space launch vehicle by the United States government is paramount,” the bill states.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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