Space Force Hopes to Recoup Costs of Commercial Launches
A law that limits launch fees is under reconsideration as more private companies use government facilities to send rockets skyward.
Decades-old policies prevent the U.S. military from recouping the true cost of launching commercial rockets from its ranges. Now the Space Force is pushing a repeal.
When a private company uses a federal launch range, the Space Force (or NASA) is only allowed to charge the company for the commodity provided—electricity, propellants, or other services—which means the government must eat the other costs. The arrangement was inked in the 1990s, when national-security launches outnumbered commercial launches. But now that the U.S. has a robust commercial launch industry, the service wants to change the way it does business.
“If we were going to be able to meet the commercial sector with the growth that they forecast, we're going to need to make some more additional investments in our launch range. We've got a legislative proposal to let them help share some of that cost burden,” Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson said Tuesday during a Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing.
The Space Force’s ranges are “about at their limit” now for the number of launches, Thompson said.
After working on the legislation for a few years, the service is “actively engaged” with congressional staffers who may include it in this year’s defense policy bill, according to the Space Force.
The service is also a part of the National Spaceport Interagency Working Group, set up by the Federal Aviation Administration, to establish a network of launch facilities and to consider models for a “port authority”—essentially an intermediate agency to run federal spaceports.
Lawmakers are concerned with launch capacity. Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., said he’s talked to “folks at Boca Chica”—a SpaceX launch location in Texas—and “they're wondering why am I reimbursing the Space Force for commercial launch when I can be reimbursing and dealing with commercial companies that can help us move faster.”
The service has this set up because of the “policies and procedures around protecting the ranges,” Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman said during a House Armed Services committee hearing April 27.
“It probably does warrant us going back and relooking to say, now that there are commercial entities that are capable of providing complete end-to-end launch services, does there need to be a relook at the model?” Saltzman said.
In the meantime, the number of commercial satellites continues to grow. The Federal Communications Commission has a backlog of 60,000 to 65,000 applications for new satellites, Waltz said during the hearing. In April, the FCC set up its own space-focused bureau, which aims to speed up processing times as applications for satellites in low Earth orbit have skyrocketed.
“We're on a trajectory now to go from several thousand satellites in orbit to nearly 100,000 over the next decade. I don't see how we get that many launches to support what we need in the proliferated architecture. I mean—you need help,” Waltz said.
The Space Force has also begun working on its next big competition for satellite launches. Called National Space Security Launch Phase 3, it splits the bidding for dozens of launches into two groups, an effort to increase the number of launch providers and usher new entrants into the market.