Radar-tracking  antenna at Cape Canaveral

A fire at a radar tracking station has delayed launches from the Eastern Test Range at Cape Canveral until mid-April, at the earliest, Space Florida reports.

This incident underscores a point which the late space visionary G. Harry Stine hammered home more than 20 years ago: a successful commercial launch vehicle must not be dependent on conventional range systems. Government ranges and launch sites are too fragile and too expensive for frequent, cheap access to space.

That point was duly noted by engineers who built the Delta Clipper Experimental (better known as DC-X) in the 1990’s. Delta Clipper proponents envisioned an operational system that would support thousands of launches per year, not the paltry dozen or so provided by expendable rockets. Achieving that goal would require drastic reductions in the size of the “standing army,” to achieve the desired economies, and ground facilities that operated more like commercial airports than guided-missile ranges.

Unfortunately, that vision did not last. With the end of the Cold War, military funding for the Delta Clipper prototype vanished.

By the early 2000’s, the space movement had been taken over by “NewSpace” groups such as the Space Frontier Foundation. Cheap Access To Space, or CATS, which had been the goal in the 1990’s, was replaced by the Bush Vision of Space Exploration. Instead of commercial spacelines serving commercial customers, the emphasis was now on NASA astronauts taking expensive jaunts to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, while contractors concentrated on restocking the government space station. It looked like the space program had gone full circle, and the missile ranges of the 1960’s were once again seen as the wave of the future.

But the CATS vision has not died completely. The military recognizes the need for new launch modes to enable more frequent, lower-cost missions. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding work on Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA), which will allow any major airport to serve as a launch site, and Experimental Spaceplane One (XS-1). At the same time, private companies like Generation Orbit, Stratolaunch Systems, Swiss Space Systems (S3), Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace are developing commercial launch systems that are not dependent on traditional ranges.

Even government advisory boards have started to notice that launch-pad shortages are affecting launch-vehicle economics.

The state of New Mexico has built a new facility at Spaceport America for Virgin Galactic and other future customers, but other developers are planning to leverage existing airport infrastructure. The City of Midland, Texas is seeking a license that would allow up to 520 launch per year from Midland International Airport.

This is just the beginning. Major parts of the US government continue to be enthralled with expendable rockets and their expensive, outdated infrastructure, but the future will not look like the past.

Written by Astro1 on March 27th, 2014 , Spaceports

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    Eric Hall commented

    During the 90’s the Air Force spent $1B over 10 years to modernize the Eastern Range. The military leadership mismanaged the program and it failed. The Air Force has since continued to cut launch range budgets, shutdown range safety assets, and continues to under fund range sustainment and modernization efforts. Space X is over 2 years behind schedule, cost the government billions, and has had a string of failures. Yet, we are continually told this is not rocket science, but just like the airline industry. Misleading statements that heavy-lift launches can become common place like air traffic at air ports will put the public at great risk. Cheap access to space is not safe access to space. Range safety is an inherently government activity which is being minimized as preventing access to space.

    April 7, 2014 at 2:49 pm
      Astro1 commented

      Every socialist failure is justified as an “inherently government activity.” The idea that transportation must be either cheap or safe is an old canard, which is disproven on a daily basis. Accidents are expensive. Transportation cannot be cheap unless it is safe, and it cannot be safe unless it is cheap. Southwest Airlines did not become the low-cost leader by having airplanes fall out of the sky.

      April 7, 2014 at 9:21 pm