The cosmos, once the exclusive realm of major powers and selected defence contractors, is opening up like never before. Technological advancement, falling costs and the entry of new state, commercial and billionaire participants are fuelling promises of our futures both on Earth and launched into the atmosphere.
Demand for space launch is picking up, with locations across the globe vying for a share of the booming space industry, a coveted prize for any government for political and economic development reasons, and increasingly for technological sovereignty.
While the value chain has spread, with as many as 72 countries now having space programmes, setting paths for the development of their local space ecosystems, spaceports, the inevitable infrastructure gateway to the cosmos, are still a prerogative of a few countries. Things may soon look very different, though.
“Traditionally, space launch has been the preserve of a few hubs such as in Kazakhstan and the US run by governments that were focused on heavy launch,” explains Farooq Sabri, a principal consultant in the space team at consultancy London Economics. “But now there is pent-up demand for lower cost launches, which has encouraged a lot of investment into spaceports.”
From northern Europe to New Zealand, spaceports — ground-based facilities used for orbital launches — are being planned and developed to provide capacity for the ‘new space’ age. Local economic developers hope to create hubs for a global space industry that Morgan Stanley predicts could grow from roughly $366bn in 2016 to more than $1100bn in revenue by 2040.
As long-fabled space tourism, exploration and colonies edge closer to becoming a mainstream reality, spaceports are aiming to facilitate constellations of smaller, cheaper satellites being launched into low-earth orbit (LEO) to meet insatiable demand for broadband connectivity and Earth observation data.
Consultancy Euroconsult projects that an average of 990 satellites will be launched into orbit every year until 2028, marking a rapid acceleration from the annual average of 230 satellites in the previous decade.
But as countries globally vie for a slice of the growing space pie, questions remain over the viability of so many spaceports, their impact on the environment and local communities, and whether the LEO satellite boom is over-hyped.
Launching an industry
In 2019, the global space economy was valued at $366bn, with the satellite industry accounting for almost three-quarters of the total, according to BryceTech, an analytics and engineering firm.
Carissa Christensen, the chief executive and founder of BryceTech, tells fDi there are two main threads to space activities: the satellite value chain and in-space activity, the latter of which includes human space flight, space stations and exploration. “The space industry is extraordinarily diverse, with businesses that have different rhythms, drivers, jobs and outcomes, and they are all linked by launch,” she says.
Spaceports have existed since 1957, when Sputnik 1 was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the south of modern-day Kazakhstan. Since then 28 spaceports have been used to launch satellites into orbit globally, with 22 still active today, according to data compiled at the beginning of 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington DC-based think tank.
“While spaceports are diverse in their business models, they have the potential to become economic engines for communities across the nation and around the world,” George Nield, the chairman of the Global Spaceport Alliance, a US-based advocacy group for the global spaceport community, wrote in 2019.
By facilitating space launch, spaceports can generate revenue from launch fees and benefit from the investments made into launch campaigns and associated activities, such as research and development, manufacturing and servicing.
GEO versus LEO
Ms Christensen says the launch sector began to become commercial and grow in the 1980s, when the market was dominated by very large satellites being put into geostationary orbit (GEO) for telecommunications, TV and other applications.
While GEO satellites orbit the Earth directly above the equator at an altitude of more than 35,000km covering large geographical areas, LEO satellites usually orbit within 1000km and do not need to follow a particular path around Earth.
GEO satellites, which are often much larger than their LEO counterparts, are typically launched from spaceports near to the equator to get an extra boost from the Earth’s rotation, whereas smaller LEO satellites that provide faster communications can be launched into orbit from appropriate sites in different areas of the world.
More than three quarters of the 3372 operational satellites in orbit around the Earth at the end of 2020 were in LEO, according to data from the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC), a US non-profit organisation. The US has by far the largest number of operating satellites in orbit (1897), used for a mix of civil, commercial and military purposes; followed by China (412) and Russia (176).
Whereas previously, space was almost exclusively the domain of governments, the recent entry of prominent business people and private capital has improved accessibility and built the case for increased launch capacity. High-profile billionaires, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk of Tesla and Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur and founder of Virgin, have set up their own rocket and satellite ventures, pushing up demand for launch capacity and services.
“Commercial capability [in the US] has quickly outpaced the government’s capability,” says Chad Anderson, founder and managing partner of Space Capital, a seed-stage venture capital firm that invests in space-based technologies.
A decade ago, he says, the space infrastructure and launch market comprised US agency Nasa and a few defence contractors, but now Elon Musk’s SpaceX has “broken that deadlock”. It has removed the barrier to entry into space by bringing down launch costs and making a previously opaque market more transparent by publishing its pricing. “SpaceX is the apex player, without a doubt,” Mr Anderson adds.
While space launch vehicles have vastly different sizes, weights and likelihoods of success, the cost of launch into LEO has declined over the last few decades, according to data from multiple sources compiled by Thomas Roberts at the CSIS Aerospace Security Project.
Starship, SpaceX’s reusable rocket system under development is making big steps towards cost reduction, and eventually plans to carry humans and cargo to the Moon and Mars. SpaceX recently won a $2.9bn contract from NASA to develop a lunar spacecraft, which was subsequently suspended after kickback from rival bidders such as Mr Bezos’s Blue Origin and defence contractor Dynetics.
SpaceX has two ground-based launch sites in Texas, located in McGregor and Boca Chica, and it has bought two oil rigs to create ‘ocean spaceports’ from which it will launch rockets. Mr Musk tweeted in May that the ‘Deimos’ platform, named after one of Mars’ moons, is under construction for launch in 2022.
But it is Mr Bezos who has grabbed headlines most recently. In June, he announced that he would become one of the first civilians to enter the edge of space on the New Shepard spacecraft, as part of a launch on July 20 from his self-funded rocket company Blue Origin’s West Texas launch facility.
Since 2015, a jump in venture and angel investment into space start-ups “was largely driven by [these] billionaire super angels”, says Ms Christensen. “You’ve got a very risk-tolerant capital looking for transformative businesses and growth in space."
Along with advancements in geospatial intelligence, Earth observations and climate change monitoring from space technology, newly developed launch capabilities are increasing the prospect of spaceport development globally.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit has developed a novel ‘horizontal’ air launch system, where rockets holding satellites are launched from the wing of a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet. After its first successful launch in January, where it took off and landed at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, Virgin Orbit hopes to use its novel launch technique from airports around the world.
“A new gateway to space has just sprung open,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement after the launch.
One location from which Virgin Orbit will launch is Newquay airport, in Cornwall at the southernmost tip of the UK, which at time of publication was set to host the G7 summit.
Melissa Thorpe, interim head of Spaceport Cornwall, tells fDi that the ambition of the spaceport is to grow the local skills base and create well paid jobs in a region currently dependent on traditional sectors such as tourism. “We aim to inspire a whole generation in Cornwall,” she says. “It still blows me away how excited this gets people and that translates to businesses wanting to move to Cornwall or start up alongside a launch.”
She says Spaceport Cornwall will use the G7 conference to “challenge outdated perceptions” of the county and to showcase internationally its integrated spaceport, which is expected to begin launch in summer 2022. It is expected to create 150 direct jobs and a further 240 jobs in the supply chain and ancillary services.
Ms Thorpe expects about 80 direct jobs to be filled locally, admitting talent will have to be attracted from outside Cornwall until the skills base grows. According to Ray Stott, a co-founder and consultant at SpaceSpecialists, which provides consulting, recruitment and training for the global space industry, there is a significant skills shortage for the industry worldwide.
Since implementing its space programme in 2017, the UK has pushed forward the development of several other spaceports, including in Wales and Scotland, as part of plans to increase its share of the global space economy to 10% by 2030. In May, regulations were pushed through parliament to enable future satellites and rockets to be launched from UK soil.
“The key thing for launch is the regulatory environment,” says Nick Shave, the chair of UKspace, the trade association for the UK space industry. “The licensing of launch operators and the eventual satellites that are going to be launched has to be attractive and competitive compared to other nations.”
Elsewhere, Virgin Orbit is developing a horizontal launch site at Oita airport in western Japan, and in April reached an agreement with Brazil to bring launch capability to the Alcântara Launch Centre.
“Alcântara is one of the most ideal places in the world for launching rockets,” said Carlos Moura, the president of Brazil’s space agency AEB, in a statement, stressing that its location on the north-eastern coast and close to the equator enables satellites to be launched more cheaply and effectively.
It is a positive development for Brazil, which has been attempting for decades to launch rockets from Alcântara. In 2003, an accidental explosion during a launch led to the death of 21 engineers and technicians at the site. “When we put the centre into operation, we will overcome a historic challenge for the programme, which means a commitment to Brazil and the world community towards ever greater achievements for humanity,” said Mr Moura.
Meanwhile in Africa, several spaceports with infrastructure built during the colonial era have become underused due to years of underinvestment, including the Hammaguir Test Centre in Algeria, which has been inactive since it was employed by France in the 1960s. But as spaceport proposals have proliferated globally, there are encouraging signs for Africa’s space industry.
In February, Turkey announced plans to invest $350m into a spaceport in Somalia as part of its $1bn Moon mission. Through international cooperation, Turkey hopes to make its first moon landing in 2023, the same year it celebrates its centennial. And in Kenya, site of the currently inactive Broglio Space Centre jointly developed by NASA and Italy in the 1960s, negotiations between the Kenyan and Italian governments are giving hope that it will be reinstated.
“These projects have set the precedent for what is possible,” says Temidayo Oniosun, managing director of Space in Africa, a media, analytics and consulting company focused on the space and satellite industry on the continent. Though most African spaceports are no longer in operation, Mr Oniosun believes that with minimal investment they could be revived and provide essential economic development opportunities.
“There are so many spaceports across the continent. Even though they are no longer working, with little investment they could rebound, providing opportunities for government revenue, private companies and the communities that surround them to thrive again,” he says.
Not everyone believes many more spaceports are needed. Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the CSIS Aerospace Security Project, says that there is a limit to what spaceports can provide, particularly given that they rely heavily on the success of launch companies that use their facilities.
“I think there is a cap. We could use a couple more launch sites around the world but not all of these commercial satellite companies are going to be successful. I think some of these launch sites, either in production or plans, will just fall through,” she adds.
One proposed spaceport aiming to avoid these pitfalls is planned in Michigan, US, and will focus on the servicing of LEO and middle-earth orbit (MEO) launches.
“Ours is a little different from other spaceports,” says Gavin Brown, the executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA), who is leading the efforts to get a licence for the spaceport from the US Federal Aviation Association (FAA). “A lot of people approach spaceports with a philosophy of ‘we’re going to build it and they will come’. We take a different approach, which is to build it on a sustainability model of business demand for LEO.”
Mr Brown believes that offering genuine value for money in both launch and the surrounding ecosystem of support services is essential to a commercially viable spaceport.
But even if LEO satellites are successful, they have a challenge to outcompete existing GEO satellites and ground-based telecommunications. McKinsey noted in a 2020 report that the manufacturing costs of LEO satellites would have to come down by at least 75% to be financially viable. “Companies planning large LEO satellite internet constellations still need to reduce a range of costs significantly to ensure long-term viability,” McKinsey said, noting that ground receivers needed for LEO constellations to operate will also need to be improved.
But even with concerns over the viability of LEO satellites, spaceports have huge potential to generate local economic development, albeit with some constraints.
Mr Sabri at London Economics says that building spaceports is an opportunity to “anchor space within local communities”, acts as a signal to investors that there is a coordinated approach across stakeholder groups, and can make a location and space-faring nation more attractive to investment. It also presents the potential for tourism activity from space enthusiasts wanting to experience this new and exciting industry.
Spaceport America in New Mexico is hoping to be a space tourism hub, also offering private tours of its facilities. In May, Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America’s anchor tenant, achieved its first human spaceflight from the port. Last November, Virgin Galactic's CEO Michael Colglazier says he sees the space tourism provider bringing up to $1bn in annual revenue per spaceport in the future.
Usually, however, due to the dangerous nature of launch activities (and numerous historical and recent examples of accidents), spaceports are sited in remote locations or near to water. “Some of the spaceports could fall down by being very remote,” says Rasmus Flytkjaer, the divisional director of London Economics’ space team, noting that spaceports require transport infrastructure and customers to visit their site.
“The fundamental question is how the spoils of the spaceport are being shared with the local community. If it’s a tourism-dependent area, the spaceport might be able to bring in more people, but there’s also the risk of displacement,” he adds.
Ms Johnson at the CSIS Aerospace Security Project notes that a single aspect of the industry is not going to sustain all of these spaceports. “It’s really a combination of all these different signals: proliferated low-earth orbit, nations reinvesting in space and the potential for space tourism,” she says, adding that all these factors make it more likely for different nations to start developing their own spaceports, even without specific launch providers attached to them.
Another downside is that while capital continues to be pumped into the launch of more satellites and spaceport development, the atmosphere is already extremely crowded. Thousands of objects, both active and inactive, are in orbit around the Earth, leading to many alerts for collisions.
“The conversation in the space policy community and international community has also become increasingly focused on sustainability and protecting the domain itself,” says Ms Johnson.
In early April, UK-based OneWeb had to move one of its satellites to avoid a close approach with a SpaceX Starlink satellite. OneWeb head of government affairs Chris McLaughlin subsequently told the Wall Street Journal that SpaceX had a “gung-ho” approach to space, joining other rivals in their criticism of Mr Musk’s attempts to create a near-monopoly.
A month later, the Long March 5B rocket carrying part of China’s Tianhe space station fell to Earth uncontrolled, drawing international attention and focus over the unregulated nature of space.
China has significantly increased its activities in space in recent years, and experts express concern about the militarisation of space and the ability to take down other country's satellites. In 2018, China launched more vessels into space than any other nation.
Spaceports are not without their detractors, including local communities. In 2017, thousands of protestors blocked entry to the Guiana Space Center (CSG) used by Arianespace and the European Space Agency, to bring attention to social and economic issues in their country, over which France still has jurisdiction.
A proposed SpaceX spaceport on Biak, a small island located near the northern coast of Papua in Indonesia, has led to kickback from local residents concerned about its impact on the environment and its potential to displace people, while in both Michigan in the US and Scotland, environmentalists have rallied against the proposed spaceports due to concerns over the local ecosystem.
“Spaceports, companies and countries need to think more critically about sustainability,” says Ms Johnson. “All these missions that are planned are going to increase the amount of active satellites in space almost exponentially if they all take off.”
But in a high-tech futuristic industry forecast to grow rapidly in the coming years, the excitement and potential to create high-paying jobs from new space economy clusters may be too tempting to ignore. As rapid advances in space-related technology and activity build the case for spaceports to be developed worldwide, only time will tell if they will blast off or fail to launch.
This article first appeared in the June/July print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.