Air Force considers privatizing Cape Canaveral operations

Air Force Reserve combat-search-and-rescue airmen from the 920th Rescue Wing patrol the skies during an Atlas V rocket launch.

Air Force Reserve combat-search-and-rescue airmen from the 920th Rescue Wing patrol the skies during an Atlas V rocket launch. / U.S. Air Force photo

By James Dean
Florida Today, July 14, 2013

Since the first rocket shot from the Cape in 1950, the Air Force has coordinated local launch activity and provided tracking and safety oversight for outbound vehicles — including pushing the destruct button if one veers off course.

Meetings this week will explore a major change to that historic role, studying the possibility of privatizing some or all operations at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Eastern Range, “the nation’s premier gateway to space.”

Under a preliminary concept to be discussed in a public forum Thursday and Friday in Colorado Springs, responsibilities now handled by the 45th Space Wing would be turned over to a spaceport operator approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The Air Force wants to understand issues associated with transitioning current government range operations at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to a commercial spaceport,” reads an invitation sent to local officials.

Air Force Space Command’s meeting announcement and a five-page concept summary stamped “PREDECISONAL” make clear that the study might not result in any action. If the concept were adopted — a process likely to take years — it’s not yet clear if it could dramatically reshape Cape launch operations or simply provide existing services more efficiently.

Space Command did not immediately respond to questions about the study, which is part of a broader assessment of range capabilities. The FAA deferred questions to the Air Force.

Several experts said budget pressures and increasing commercialization of launch activity are driving the Department of Defense to consider the concept seriously, though ideas have been discussed for years. “Military space has been very expensive and they’ve got to cut costs,” said Charles Vick, senior technical and space policyanalyst at GlobalSecurity.org. “It would allow the Air Force to concentrate less money on running a range and concentrate on the payloads, launch vehicles and propulsion systems, where they really want to make major changes and major progress.”

Vick believes the proposal would not affect operations significantly, suggesting it would “rearrange rice bowls,” or shift responsibilities and costs. But he said it would be important for the Air Force to transfer experience and lessons learned to a new spaceport operator “so that we don’t make stupid mistakes with national security payloads and lose them.”

Edward Ellegood, a space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, saw the concept having more far-reaching implications, potentially resetting how range operations are funded and missions prioritized. He likened the change to the former McCoy Air Force Base turning into Orlando International Airport. “Which would you rather see?” he said. “We might be seeing the beginnings of that transition to a more vibrant commercial space transportation hub.”

But while giving the Air Force kudos for starting the discussion, Ellegood said he doubts the concept will go anywhere. “It would be a radical change to their national security mindset to give up control over this launch capability,” he said.

Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello welcomed the Air Force’s fresh look at costs and ways to adapt to a changing industry. “It’s certainly prompted in part by budget realities, but there is also an opportunity to face the future, to face the way the market is evolving,” he said. “The space business is becoming more commercial and more routine, and all of the users of space transportation services should look at the most cost-effective ways of acquiring those services.”

This week, the Air Force says it wants to learn more about how other public-private partnerships have worked and to solicit feedback from industry partners.

According to the concept summary, launch programs would contract for services as needed from a spaceport operator that manages, “as a business or quasi government entity,” the airport, roads, utilities, support services and range capabilities at the 16,000-acre base.

It assumes the portions of the 45th Space Wing and its contractors “that deal with base and range activities would be eliminated and replaced by an FAA-licensed commercial launch site operator.”

The new site operator, rocket launchers and government agencies would collaborate to ensure public safety. The FAA has licensed eight spaceports across the country and issues safety approvals for commercial vehicles launching and reentering the atmosphere, including when SpaceX flies cargo to the International Space Station.

The agency is expected to license launches from Florida of NASA astronauts on commercial systems anticipated in the next few years.

Already, the military is not the only operator of U.S. launch ranges: NASA runs one at Wallops Island in Virginia and Alaska contracts for services at Kodiak Island.

NASA says it is working closely with the FAA and Air Force to help ensure range services here would be provided “in the most cost effective and efficient manner without any sacrifice to public safety,” according to a statement.

Thousands of rockets have launched through the Eastern Range, which spans 15 million square miles, with no public casualties. But its high costs and bureaucracy have contributed to a perception that it is difficult to work with for non-government launchers. That environment has improved, but once-common commercial launches are now virtually non-existent from the Cape, having moved overseas.

The Air Force’s preliminary study won’t affect Space Florida’s effort to establish the Shiloh launch complex at the north end of Kennedy Kennedy Space Center and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is competing with other states to win commercial launches by SpaceX and others.

“The fact that the range might undergo some degree of privatization doesn’t take away the need for Shiloh,” DiBello said.

The Air Force’s next steps after the upcoming meetings could not immediately be confirmed.

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