SpaceX will occupy the West Coast launch pad previously used by ULA

Cape Canaveral LC-14

WASHINGTON — SpaceX is getting a second launch pad on the West Coast after being approved to lease Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, a historic site formerly occupied by the United Launch Alliance.

Space Launch Delta 30, the Space Force unit that operates the West Coast Launch Range, announced on April 24 that SpaceX will use the pad to launch Falcon rockets.

SpaceX is expanding operations at Vandenberg — it has leased SLC-4 since 2015 — following a period of extraordinary growth fueled by commercial launch demand and the deployment of its Starlink Internet mega-constellation. SLC-6 will be SpaceX’s fifth launch site in the United States. In addition to SLC-4 at Vandenberg, it has two launch pads in Florida and one at Starbase in South Texas.

The company launched 61 orbital missions in 2022, nearly doubling its previous one-year record of 31 launches set in 2021. It has set a target of 100 launches by 2023.

After the final flight of ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy on September 24, the massive SLC-6 launch site was occupied. ULA will consolidate West Coast launch operations for its new Vulcan Centaur vehicle at SLC-3, where Atlas 5 lifted off. Last time in November.

“This is an exciting time for Vandenberg Space Force Base,” said Col. Robert Long, commander of Space Launch Delta 30.

SCL-6 was built in the 1960s to launch the Air Force’s never-flown manned orbital laboratory. It was repurposed in the 1980s as a dedicated launch and landing site for military space shuttle missions. But the Air Force mothballed the California site without ever launching a West Coast shuttle. It reactivated the site in the 1990s for a handful of Lockheed Martin Athena launches and turned it over to ULA in 2006 for the Delta 4 program.

In 2019 Northrop Grumman announced that it planned to use the SLC-6 to launch the Omega solid rocket that it was developing for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 competition. But the company shut down the program after losing out to ULA and SpaceX for the NSSL Phase 2 contract.

US launch range in transition

In an interview last week at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Long said “several interested parties” are competing for the SLC-6 lease.

He said the Space Force looks at many different factors when allocating launch facilities to commercial providers. “Anytime you take a launch site and you build it over years or decades, you want to make sure the government is getting value out of that launch property. And so we go through that whole evaluation and then make a decision on who’s going to come forward.

Col. James Horne, deputy director of launch and range operations for the Space Force’s Space Systems Command, said partnerships with commercial launch providers are a matter of national security because the military relies on these companies for access to space.

Both the East Coast and West Coast launch ranges are taking significant steps to accommodate commercial growth, he said. Space News.

Cape Canaveral and the Florida Range at Kennedy Space Center are launching 92 orbital launches in 2023, compared to 57 in 2022. At Vandenberg, launches are expected to double from 19 last year to about 40 in 2023.

“We benefit from innovation in the commercial industry,” Horne said.

Col. Mark Shoemaker, vice commander of the Space Launch Delta 45 unit overseeing Cape Canaveral, noted that the United States and China compete as space powers.

In 2021, the United States surpassed China for the first time, which launched 55 space missions, while the US had 43.

“It’s all about space access,” Shoemaker said in an interview. “And there’s no space access without spaceports, and what we’re doing is enabling a country’s capability in space, whether it’s for national security, civilian or commercial.”

As launch range owners, “we need to stay ahead of this wave of industry need, and we need to do it from a military and national security perspective, but we need to do it in partnership with our commercial companies,” Long said.

Conversations with launch executives at a recent space symposium “confirmed that the tempo is not going to slow down anytime soon,” Long added. And those predictions strongly shape the Space Force’s launch pad allocation strategy.

Horne noted that the Pentagon’s proposed five-year budget for fiscal years 2024-2028 includes a $1 billion investment in federal spaceport infrastructure. “We are moving forward,” he said.

Cape Canaveral LC-14
Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 14, seen here supporting the Atlas launch of the Mercury mission in the 1960s, is one of three historic launch sites that the Space Force has assigned to small launch vehicle startups. Credit: NASA

At the Cape, in particular, there is “limited real estate,” Horne said, so the Space Force is working with the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and other agencies to find ways to get more opportunities for continuous launches.

Shoemaker pointed out that the range usually allows for a much larger number of launches than actually occur. “That’s because the satellites aren’t ready for many launches that we’re willing to support.”

The Space Force, meanwhile, has advocated a commercial business model that would allow the range to function more like airports or seaports, Horne noted. This will help support the growth initiatives sought by the industry.

By law, the DoD pays for the operation and maintenance of the range and cannot accept private funding for infrastructure upgrades. Horne said the space force is open to other business models as long as they don’t affect the competitiveness of US industry.

Some of these reforms are being considered by Congress and would require new legislation. “We want to be able to launch 300 missions a year” between the eastern and western ranges, Horne said, as long as that can be done without compromising safety. “We will do what is necessary for national security purposes and still maximize the opportunity for commercial industry.”

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