USSF’s Increased Focus on Spaceport Access

In the last few years, the USSF has been moving quickly bolster its partnerships with commercial space by establish partnerships with non-governmental entities in the Commercial Augmentation of Space Reserves1 (CASR) initiative or by the USSF outright funding novel satellite technologies through space industry.2 Space Systems Command (SSC), the acquisition arm of the USSF, has now taken that conversation to launch sites when it hosted the inaugural Space Mobility conference in Orlando, Florida. One of the primary topics was “space access as it relates to spaceports.”

There are actually 20 spaceports in the United States3, though most are either private or “available for lease and development,” according to the FAA. In reality, only a handful of spaceports are used frequently. The US is still launching more satellites a year than any other country in the world, but China now boasts the most defense-related payload launches per year4.  Often, a slip outside of the window in the launch timeline for your program could mean being delayed by months trying to work your name back onto the manifest.  

The USSF would greatly benefit from investing in new spaceports by assuring more of a rapid-launch capability. While not all sites boast the same geometry for launch capabilities, in times of heightened tensions, a GPS satellite may not be as appealing to destroy when a spare is sitting on the pad. However, if these new spaceports are developed, the US must focus on cybersecurity. The US has been using its primary four spaceports, Cape Cod, Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, and Wallops, all since the 1950s and 1960s. While technology improvements are no doubt occurring at these legacy sites, newer private spaceports are either driving state-of-the-art technology, or they are collecting dust and waiting to be leased out.

Either way, the USSF is wise to increase in collaboration and partnership. If a foreign power launches an assault on the US’ current launch sites, it would be all too easy to completely shut down the US’ access to space. With the recent acceleration of launches, on-orbit technologies are being updated more quickly than ever. With a prolonged enough attack, foreign powers like China could devastate the US’ technological edge in space and the launch manifest may take years to recover. But the same warning that applied to the CASR initiative applies here: the USSF shouldn’t move faster than the speed of reliable security. These private companies usually have not had the cybersecurity focuses or rulesets applied to government programs, and a partnership with the USSF cannot be allowed to inadvertently turn into a deal with the devil – the USSF must reverse lax security habits with all partnerships to ensure adversaries do not get easier access through an ill-fated initiative.

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