To a New Horizon: Dawn of the Spaceports (Part Four)
With SpaceX announcing its first paying customer to the Moon, Virgin Galactic getting ready for its first space mission, and Blue Origin planning its own crewed mission in 2019, space tourism for the ultra-rich is launching off. But in order for this industry to literally take off, fully operational spaceports are an absolutely necessary component.
In Part One, we looked at the legal foundation for spaceport licensing in the United States. While in Part Two and Part Three, we explored the existing commercial spaceports in the United States and around the world. While spaceports have not had the immediate impact that many have hoped and expected, in this Part Four, I advocate the perspective that all is not lost in space in this sector: we must measure the success of these spaceports in the long run and public spending is needed to spur private investment and will act as a moral imperative.
No Immediate Plans for Lift-off
Recently, many articles have been written (e.g., here and here) about the millions of public money sunk into the construction and operation of these commercial spaceports with little to show for. These criticisms are not without reason: while the commercial space industry a $345 billion market worldwide, many of the U.S. licensed spaceports have not had a single commercial launch. With more and more states and public agencies looking to build spaceports of their own, the rise of spaceports is outpacing the need for them.
In 2017, United States only had 21 commercial launches. Although this figure accounts for a majority of commercial launches worldwide (at 33), it is still a far-cry from the figure that is needed to make spaceports commercially viable. While the number of commercial launches is likely to increase significantly year over year—with already 31 commercial launches as of December 5, 2018—the growth is still not what many have expected. Take for instance Spaceport America in New Mexico and its main tenant, Virgin Galactic. While Virgin Galactic has made great strides recently, its commercial spaceflight was supposed to have commenced by 2008, which was then delayed to 2012, then 2015, and now before the end of 2018. Additionally, other spaceports are plagued with space enterprises that have gone out of business or declared bankruptcy. Surrounded by delays and cancellations, you can hardly blame the critics for espousing their perspectives; they are more than well-justified.
The Journey of a Thousand Miles
However, even with this failure to launch in the short run, I believe the spaceport industry should only be judged by its long-run potential. Furthermore, the public expenditure in this sector has not been wasted and is needed to both spur private investment and serve as a moral imperative for America to stay in the lead for this next technological frontier.
A Marathon, not a Sprint
Although NASA took us to the moon with the Apollo Program in a little bit more than a decade, the program’s success was built on the shoulders of Projects Mercury and Gemini. Likewise, growth in the commercial space sector will take time and should be measured in decades rather than years.
Looking from such a perspective, this sector has come a long way in the last fifteen years. For instance in 2018: SpaceX is on a regular cadence (and successfully launched its Falcon Heavy earlier this year) when even 10 years ago, its survival was very much in doubt. Virgin Galactic seems really close to the reality of taking space tourism to the next level (even if it doesn’t meet its Christmas 2018 deadline). Looking to 2019, some are already calling it the “year of space” as many commercial space enterprises and projects, such as Blue Origin, Starliner, NASA’s commercial crew program, are set to reach significant milestones.
Although the construction of many existing spaceports might have put the proverbial cart before the horse, now is not the time to stop investments in this area. As commercial space enterprises continue to mature, the need for functional spaceports will only increase. Spaceports in different geographical areas can be optimized to serve particular launch operations into specific orbits. So while some of these infrastructures might have been sitting idle, these spaceports can now be quickly ramped up with the foundation in place, the asphalt paved, and the air zones cleared.
The Public-Private Symbiotic Relationship
Second, success in the Outer Space sector requires significant expenditure and involves a heavy dose of risk. For such an industry to take off, public funding is a necessary component to spur on private investment.
The uncertainty and risk associated with Outer Space travel can stymie even the most well-funded enterprises: while the chance of failure is a part of the equation for these venture-backed companies, the reward, or potential revenue, must justify this risk. However, the risk-reward profile in such an emerging industry often does not lead to investment support. Hence, public money is needed to swing the equation for angel investors to bet on these companies’ potential success by concept-proving the technology, underlying physics, and aerospace mechanics that are essential to Outer Space travel. This type of work, with commercial viability and profit generation yet to be seen, is best left to academic researchers whose pursuit for knowledge do not need further justification to a board or shareholders.
Likewise, these spaceports can be an enabling factor for new start-ups and private enterprises to enter this growing sector. For instance, SpaceX succeeded not despite of NASA but because of NASA and its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Announced in 2006, COTS was a new type of program in which NASA would “act as an investor and advisor” by providing milestone payments as private companies take the lead in developing the next generation launch vehicles for transporting crew and supply to the International Space Station. NASA’s final report on COTS was that the program was a resounding success. Like COTS, these spaceports are essentially subsidizing developments in the private sector by providing a much needed market for these companies. While not directly funding such private enterprises, these spaceports ensure that companies have a chance at commercial viability: not having to worry about the how and where they can carry out the activities associated with their products. These ventures can then dedicate their full focus on the successful development of their Outer Space-related technologies, which in turn encourages private investment into the Outer Space industry.
Not because it’s Easy, but because it’s Hard
When President John F. Kennedy propelled America to the Moon, it was not because the goal was easy, but because the mission was hard. While this new push for spaceports is coming from local and state authorities rather than from the federal level, the same moral imperative that existed for the first Space Race is still relevant today as America tries to maintain its leadership for this next iteration.
The whole world over was mesmerized by the historic moment when Neil Armstrong took humanity’s first step on the Moon. For NASA and America, this footprint not only represented the successful conclusion to a decade-long program but is also a deeply nation defining moment: the Moon landing took the blood, sweat, and tears of countless individuals to accomplish and is often cited as one of the most iconic moments of American history. While the public expenditures were great, the Apollo program and its lasting legacy cannot be over emphasized: whenever a task seems too great or too challenging, America can recall this moment as a time when Americans turned what was impossible and improbable to not only a possibility but a reality.
In the same way, these spaceports are much more than just a financial investment and can aid in the quest of uplifting the American spirit. By providing physical platforms that enable Americans to reach and touch the sky, these spaceports can literally prove that there is no height that we can’t reach, and that sky isn’t even a limit. Like the astronauts of the Apollo Program, entrepreneurs using these spaceports can inspire millions with their gravity-defying accomplishments; helping to ignite the imagination of kids today to become the next generation of innovators.
Series Epilogue: Dreams of What to Come
In this Four Part series, I provided an in-depth look at spaceports: both international and domestic, as well as the regulations and policy surrounding spaceports in America. It is my hope that this mini-series can serve as an insightful tool to begin your own journey to learn more about the structures needed to take us to the stars, moon, mars, and beyond. For me, these spaceports represent the dreams of what could be possible and are a symbol of the better world to come: a new home that includes not only earth but every part of the universe that we are willing to explore. While they might be the last thing on our minds as we watch and pray for each new launch to successfully take off, these spaceports will always and forever be the literal starting point for each new mission that will take us to a new dawn.
The Annual Compendium of Commercial Space Transportation – 2018: https://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ast/media/2018_AST_Compendium.pdf
Commercial Orbital Transportation Services: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/SP-2014-617.pdf