There have been a number of attempts to establish commercially operated spaceports. Most of these are based on existing space related facilities such as Cape Canaveral and White Sands. They indirectly profit from the existence of these facilities and their associated infrastructure, coupled to the desire of the owner of the facilities, i.e., the government, to achieve an optimal utilization of the assets at these locations.
However, the establishment of a commercial spaceport outside these established facilities is a capital intensive undertaking with a significant threat of failure when considering the nature of the space launch market.
In this article, the author presents two case studies of such commercial spaceports. One of these is the Kodiak Launch Complex, which, at a casual and first glance, seems to be a success, whereas the other is the failed Christmas Island Spaceport in the Indian Ocean off the coast of western Australia.
Case 1: Kodiak Launch Complex
The Kodiak Launch Complex is located at Narrow Cape, about 70 km from the town of Kodiak on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Operated by the Alaska Aerospace Corporation (AAC), a state owned company, it is the USAs only high latitude spaceport providing optimal support to space launches to polar orbit, including circular and highly elliptical Molniya and Tundra orbits. It has an unrestricted down range launch azimuth ranging from 110 degrees to 220 degrees. Kodiak is the only U.S. facility that can launch high inclination (63.4 degree) missions without land over-flight and the requirement to resort to energy consuming dog leg flight segments. The current facilities, within the 3,717 acres on which the facility operates, consist of:
– Launch Pad 1 and its Launch Service Structure with a 75 ton bridge crane; four work platforms adjustable in height by 1ft increments; and custom fitted work platform inserts to accommodate vehicles to 16ft in diameter
– Launch Pad 2, which supports the launch of long range ballistic target missiles and other missiles from a flat concrete pad
– Maintenance and Support Facility which provides 16,000ft² of ground level shop and a storage area divided into three bays as well as a machine shop, a customer storage bay and engineering office space for KLC staff
– Payload Processing Facility
– Spacecraft Assemblies Transfer Facility with a rail mobile structure servicing the IPF and Launch Pads 1 and 2
– Integration Processing Facility (IPF) supporting horizontal checkout and integration of rocket motors
– Range Instrumentation provided by the Honeywell Inc. designed Range Safety and Telemetry System (RSTS) that supports telemetry receiving and command destruct functions. AAC has two RSTSs, one for use at KLC and another for use at an off-axis site chosen to assure communications in the event of plume attenuation
A third and fourth Launch Pad as well as a Rocket Motor Storage Facility are planned.
Since commencing operations only two orbital space launches took place from Kodiak with another planned for May 2011. (See Figure 1)
In addition a number of sub-orbital launches took place, most of which were for the Department of Defenses Missile Defense Agency (MDA). (See Figure 2)
The financial situation of the agency, based on information published by the State of Alaska Office of Management and Budget (OMB), indicates wildly fluctuating results, clearly associated with the number of launches that took place in a given year. In particular, the 2010 FY was a bad year which was caused by the delay in the only two planned launches to late of that year or to 2011.
The assets at KLC represent a current capital investment of US $120,322,345.
Case 2: Christmas Island Spaceport
Australia has seen various examples of proposals for spaceports that never got anywhere.
During the 1980s, the Australian Space Office became involved in the Cape York Spaceport project which envisaged the establishment of a commercial launch site for Soviet Zenit launch vehicles in northern Queensland. This project also included the development of a seaport and an airstrip and was expected to commence commercial launches in 1995 with an eventual launch rate of five per year.
The project failed to materialize as a result of lack of financial sponsors and the project changed hands several times. It was also hampered by environmental and aboriginal tribal concerns, while the general downturn in the space industry may also have been a contributing factor.
United Launch Systems International (USLI) of Brisbane proposed to build a commercial satellite launch at South Gladstone in Queensland. USLI, a consortium of Australian, Asian and European interests, hoped to use the Russian Unity launch vehicle to launch communications satellites into low-Earth orbit. The operations were specifically targeted to Teledesic and Iridium follow-up satellites, although in the longer term, scientific and Earth observation satellites could have been launched from the site. The Unity launch vehicle was being developed by the State Rocket Centre at Mias, Russia.
The third venture was the Christmas Island Spaceport on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean at 10 degrees 25South, 105 degrees 43East.
Asia Pacific Space Centre (ASPC) Pty Ltd, a Sydney based Australian company that was incorporated in 1997 and had a majority of Australian as well as U.S. and Asian investors, was to develop the launch site and associated facilities on the southern end of Christmas Island at a site known as South Point. The spaceport would have been built within an existing mining lease on South Point and construction was expected to take 18 months.
Christmas Island was selected because of its geographic location. The island is surrounded by ocean that allows clear flight paths to the east and to the south so that both equatorial and polar satellites could have been launched.
APSC proposed to launch satellites for a wide range of commercial customers in the telecommunications, global positioning and remote sensing disciplines and did not intend to launch military satellites. Once fully operational, ASPC envisaged conducting 10 to 12 launches per year whereas the expected lifespan of the spaceport was set at 15 to 20 years, depending on market forces. Each satellite launch would have required approval of the Australian Federal Government in accordance with the Space Activities Act 1998.
On May 23, 2001, Russian and Australian officials signed an agreement to launch commercial satellites using Russian rockets from a new spaceport that was to be built on Christmas Island. The proposal involved the Russian Aurora launch vehicle. The first launch was envisaged for 2004.
Aurora Launch Vehicle
The center piece of the Christmas Island Spaceport proposal, the Aurora, was a three or four stage launch vehicle to be developed by Energiya and TsSKB-Progress. The three stage version was to be used for low-Earth payloads, while the four stage version was to be used for geosynchronous satellites with a mass of up to 4500 kg.
Stage details were:
– Stage 1, to be built by Progress, consisted of four liquid oxygen/kerosene RD-107 rocket motors built by NPO Energomash which were attached to the second or core stage
Stage 2 or core stage, also to be built by Progress, was to be propelled by an NK-33 propulsion system and would also have carried the flight systems
Stage 3, also called Block E, was to be developed by Energiya and would have used the well proven RD-0124 liquid oxygen/kerosene propulsion system that has been extensively used for the Soyuz launch vehicle
Stage 4, also to be built by Energiya, was called Corvette and would have used the 11D58M liquid oxygen/kerosene engine built by NPO Veronezh
The payload fairing was, once again, by Progress. The Aurora launch vehicle would have been capable of delivering 12,000 kg payloads into a low-Earth orbit and 4,500 kg payloads into a geosynchronous orbit. The first Aurora launch was expected to take place from Baikonour in the third quarter of 2003. This was to be followed by further tests from Baikonour as well as from Christmas Island, with operational flights starting in 2004.
Christmas Island Facilities
The establishment of APSC would have provided a range of benefits to Australia:
– The generation of export income from satellite launch operations
– Short term employment of in the construction phases and long term employment in the operational stages
– Improvement to the infrastructure on Christmas Island
Moreover, APSC had committed itself to establish a space research center in Australia, which would have liaised closely with APSC and tertiary institutions in Australia.
The launch complex, covering an area of 85 hectares, was to consist of the actual launch site (LC), on the extreme south of the area. Initially, one launch pad was to be developed. However, there was space for another three pads. The technical complex (TC) was to have included the vehicle assembly building, a payload preparation building, storage for components, a liquid oxygen plant, and a fuel store. The site would also include workshops, laboratories, a canteen and staff rest areas. It was located about 1.5 km north of the launch site. The mission operations complex (MC) was to be 2.5 km north of the launch site, where mission control, a viewing area, and a communications facility would be located.
The entire project would have also provided housing for 250 to 300 workers during the construction phase as well as permanent housing for operational personnel, to be built in the Irvine Hill area near the airport. Once operational, the spaceport was expected to 550 employees.
Aurora launch vehicles would have been transported from Russia in specialized containers, while satellites were to be transported from their place of manufacture. Once on Christmas Island, the launch vehicle would have been assembled and the satellite added to it. The completed launch vehicle and satellite would then have been moved to the launch complex by rail, where it would have been raised into a vertical position. Three typical flight paths are shown in the accompanying diagram.
Flight path A was proposed for satellites to be placed into a geostationary orbit and routing would have passed between Indonesia and Australia, providing a minimum clearance of 40 km from all land for the first 4500 km of the flight. Flight path B would have been used for spacecraft intended to go into orbit with an inclination of 45 to 65 degrees, with a trajectory going over a very deserted area of the Australian mainland. A third trajectory, Flight path C, was intended for sun-synchronous orbit injections as well as polar orbits.
Each mission required a maximum of four drop zones for expended hardware and the rocket for each mission was to be configured in such a way that it would fall into open ocean.
Assessment + Conclusion
Why did the Christmas Island proposal fail? Launch services fall into, essentially, three markets: commercially-based launches into geostationary transfer orbit and subsequently transfer into geostationary orbit; commercially-based launches into low-Earth orbit; and, government-sponsored launches, including military launches, into either geostationary transfer or low-Earth orbit
At the time that the Christmas Island proposal was floated, the average demand for commercial satellites launched into a geostationary orbit for the next 10 years was expected to be an average of 20 per year3.
On the supply side were the launch services offered with the Ariane, Delta, Atlas, Long March, Proton, H 2A and Sea Launch launch vehicles, which provided an annual launch capacity of as many as to 76 flights4.
In the low-Earth orbit commercial market, it was estimated that a total of 43 launches were needed for the 2001 to 2010 period, an average of four per year5.
On the supply side were the facilities offered by the lighter Delta vehicles, Dnepr, Long March 2 series, as well as a number of launch vehicles in a flight testing phase (such as Indias PSLV). The annual launch rate capability of these was about 20 vehicles a year6.
A direct comparison of these demand and supply figures is somewhat clouded by the absence of figures for government launch requirements in the two markets. However, it is highly unlikely that government requirements could have filled the obvious gaps between demand and supply.
In further considering the situation in the context of the Christmas Island Spaceport, recognition must be given to the emergence of other proposed launch vehicles services (at that time Kistler, Angara, Orbital), on the supply side. Some of these were developed with the low-Earth orbiting telecommunication constellations, such as Iridium, Teledesic and Orbcomm Kistler and Angara have either disappeared or have been substantially delayed.
APSC was obviously well aware of this gap, but they believed they could compete successfully in the market with a price of US$ 15,000 per kg, as opposed to US$ 20,000 per kg for other launch services7, i.e., a 25 percent lower price than elsewhere. With 85 percent of the commercial market having satellites of 4,500 kg, a single launch would mean revenue of $67,500,000 for APSC.
For launches into a low-Earth orbit, the 12,000 kg capability of the Aurora vehicle would be significantly over the mass of, for instance, an Iridium type satellite, which was less than 1,000 kg, indicating there could have been multiple satellites on a single launch.
At the time, PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimated that Australia (presumably APSC) could have expected to capture between 10 and 20 percent of a launch market that was to be worth up to $40 billion over the current decade8.
How realistic were the expectations of the sponsors? It seems they were at odds with the market predictions for launch vehicles.
In a statement made in December 20019, David Kwon, APSCs Managing Director, said that he expected 15 Aurora launch vehicles would eventually be launched each year from Christmas Island. Just put that in perspective: In 2001, 15 launches occurred from Baikonour, including several military launches; there were 17 launches from Cape Canaveral, including 6 Space Shuttle launches; there were 8 launches from Kourou. Also in 2001, there were 14 typical commercial launches. Did David Kwon expect to capture the entire market? Did he expect Arianespace, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Energiya and the Chinese to drop out of the market?
The 2001 market predictions that have been quoted in this article by Dr. Bruce Middleton, former Director of the Australian Space Office and, at the time, an independent consultant, were also reflected by the Futron Corporation in their October 2001 report The Space Launch Industry Recent Trends and Near-Term Outlook. Also in March 2002, Forecast International in their study Commercial Communications Satellites: 2002-2011, indicated that large spacecraft production levels would reach their lowest point by the middle of the decade whilst they expected that the low-Earth orbiting satellite market would remain in the doldrums.
So why was it the Russians were so actively pursuing this launch site development?
The hint is in one small odd statement made by Russia in relation to the Christmas Island proposal. They did not intend to put any money into the launch site development their contribution to the project was a launch vehicle. As the Aurora launch vehicle was not much more than a Soyuz launcher with some new and recycled bits and pieces added to it, as well as a new name, the Russian investment, in monetary terms, would have been quite minimal.
A Christmas Island launch site would have allowed Russian rockets to carry heavier cargoes to higher orbits. Earnings from commercial launches have been a key source of revenue for Russias space industry and heavier cargoes mean more income. It is worthwhile to note that the Russians will finally achieve their goal of an equatorial launch site when the first Soyuz launch vehicle is launched from Kourou, later this year.
Kodiak Launch Complex Opinion
With respect to the Kodiak Launch Complex there is, in the opinion of this author, a real chance that it will fail as a true commercial spaceport. In a realistic commercial undertaking, investors would expect to get a return on capital investment within about 10 years.
With the current capital investment of about $120,000,000, as quoted by the Alaska Office of Management and Budget, this would mean an average profit of $12 million per year (ignoring future capital investments and inflation), a level of profit that has not been reached in any of the six years of operation.
This indicates that the State of Alaska may have to subsidize the operations of the spaceport, unless new markets can be found and captured. The fact that, so far, the U.S. government, through the Missile Defense Agency, has been the only major customer, and that the current contract expires on August 31, 2011, has caused the Governor of Alaska to transfer the operations of the AAC from the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development to the Alaska Department of Military and Veteran Affairs as of July 1, 2011.
Is this obvious attempt to strengthen the sites ties with the military sufficient? Based on the historic figures, a military contract at the same level as in previous years may sustain operations for some years at a low level. Fortunately, Kodiak has the advantage that it allows suborbital missiles to be launched into directions that are more difficult to achieve from other locations.
To make full use of the complex, more orbital launches of a commercial nature (including NASA launches) would be required. However, the complex has two major limitations that will prevent it from attracting a major share of the commercial market. First of all, the advantage of location that seems so useful for the military, limits commercial satellite launches to those that have to be placed in a polar orbit.
Furthermore, there is the burdensome cost of transporting equipment, rockets and launch personnel to Kodiak. With the new launch vehicles such as the Falcon 9 and Taurus 2 achieving flight status and operating from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg, the use of Kodiak does not seem attractive.
Euroconsult, a leading space consultant firm, has forecast that about 1,220 satellites will be launched over the next 10 years. Of these, 808 satellites will be funded by civilian and military government agencies, with about two-thirds of those being for civil of civil/military use. In addition, Euroconsult expects that 200 satellites will be launched into medium and low Earth orbits (MEO and LEO) during the period, of which 80 percent, i.e., 160 communications satellites, will replace the first generation Iridium, Globalstar, and Orbcomm satellites. This seemingly leaves 20 satellites for other purposes10.
While none of these figures directly correlate to the Kodiak Launch Complex, they do provide, in the opinion of the author, a clear indication that, with the operational limitations outlined above, it is highly unlikely that the complex will attract sufficient orbital launches to make it a profitable commercial undertaking.
About the author
Jos Heyman is the Managing Director of Tiros Space Information, a Western Australian consultancy specializing in the the dissemination of information on the scientific exploration and commercial application of space for use by educational as well as commercial organizations. An accountant by profession, Jos is the editor of the TSI News Bulletin
1 Performance Alaska Aerospace Corporation 2010, Office of Management and Budget, omb.alaska.gov/results, at time of accessing
2 Details obtained from the APSC website, apsc2orbit.com, at the time of accessing
3 FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, 2000 Commercial Space Transportation Forecasts, Washington, May 2000, as published in Middleton, B.S., An Update on the Commercial Space Launch Market In The Next Decade, Canberra, March 2001, Table 1
4 Middleton, B.S., An Update on the Commercial Space Launch Market In The Next Decade, Canberra, March 2001, Table 2
5 Middleton, B.S., Table 4
6 Middleton, B.S., Table 5
7 Miles, A., Christmas Island Launch Center Gains Momentum, space.com, 6 September 2001
8 Press release, 24 June 2001
9 Western Australian Newspaper 21 December 2001
10 Euroconsult, Satellites to be Built and Launched by 2019, World Market Survey, as reported by http://www.spacemart.com/reports on 7 September 2010