Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on March 1, 2018.

Primed for Lift-off

The commercial space industry accounts for more than $330 billion per year worldwide and is poised for a rapid expansion. Communities around the country are trying to get in on the boom by creating spaceports, but guidance for building and managing the facilities can be tough to find. To help, NASA has submitted a request to NFPA to explore the possibility of creating a new standard on spaceport construction and operation.


About three years ago, the Camden County (Georgia) Board of Commissioners instructed Steve Howard, the county administrator, to figure out how to build a spaceport. Lured by the financial prospects of a $335-billion-per-year (and growing) commercial space industry, the facility envisioned by the board would launch and potentially land up to 12 commercial rockets per year, craft that would carry satellites, cargo, research equipment, and more bound for Earth's orbit.

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“But it’s not just about launching rockets—that's just the catalyst. There are all of these residual opportunities that also come with it,” Howard said, with the deftness of a salesman who believes wholeheartedly in the vision and has had years to practice the pitch. Apart from the millions of dollars the facility could generate in launch fees, Howard believes the spaceport could also spur a research and innovation hub in the county, create hundreds of high-paying jobs, inspire a generation of students, and attract thousands of tourists each year to watch powerful rockets blast into space.

That is, if it gets built.

Since Spaceport Camden's vision was conceived, Howard has been engrossed in the project as its spokesman and leader. He meets regularly with executives from commercial space companies who seek him out to learn more and to potentially line up invaluable future launch space. He holds frequent meetings with myriad federal agencies, as well as local stakeholders such as the nearby naval base and local emergency management departments. He has also assembled a bevy of consultants—ranging from private space industry insiders to retired Air Force generals—to help him navigate the detailed spaceport permitting process required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“I kid and say I've got more generals than Donald Trump now,” Howard said of the team he has put in place to compile the information necessary to complete the environmental impact and safety documents demanded by the FAA. “As much as it can be a cumbersome, complex, and expensive process, on the other side of it I understand sometimes it needs to be that. This is a renaissance in the space industry that is just starting to emerge. It’s not a cookie-cutter process.”

Indeed, building a commercial launch site for rockets is anything but cookie cutter, even for people with years of experience. With the commercial space industry poised for significant growth and demand for launch space reaching the stratosphere, that complexity and lack of accessible guidance is raising concern in the industry. To help, NASA recently submitted a request to NFPA to explore the possibility of creating a new standard on spaceport construction and operation.

Spaceport Camden Launchpad

Rendering of Spaceport Camden Welcome center and landing zone

Aerial View of Camden Space Area

Ready to Launch Renderings of Spaceport Camden, one of four proposed commercial spaceports under review by the FAA, which would be built on several thousand acres along the Southern Georgia coast (bottom). The facility would be the first exclusively commercial spaceport on the East Coast and would consist of a vertical launch site (top), a welcome center (middle left), a landing zone for rockets returning to Earth (middle right), as well as the necessary operations and support facilities. Photographs: Spaceworks Enterprises Inc.

“If you are a local fire marshal or authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) trying to understand and figure out how to build a spaceport, how to make it safe, and how to respond and do emergency planning, I feel for you,” said Jason Scott, the program manager for fire protection at NASA and head of fire protection at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The same concerns exist for emergency operations, he added. “If you’re building a commercial spaceport today, you have to pull in some things from NASA or the Air Force, or things the FAA has published. Some of these codes conflict, where one tells you it should be green and the other says it should be red … There isn’t really any good guidance out there.”

PUT IN SIMPLEST TERMS, spaceports are to space travel what airports are to air travel—a place to fuel, store, and prep rockets, then blast them into orbit and, increasingly, to land them safely back on earth, as the company SpaceX did to much fanfare with its Falcon Heavy flight in early February. Each spaceport varies slightly in configuration, but all have the basics one might expect: tanks of powerful fuels and propellants; lengthy runways for horizontal launches, or large reinforced concrete launch pads and service structures for vertical ones; an array of sophisticated electrical and communications equipment; water tanks to deluge launch facilities during take-off to reduce possible fire spread and to muffle the vast acoustical energy that could damage the rocket and launch area; and all the pipes, outbuildings, equipment, and machinery needed to operate such a facility. Today, there are 10 licensed commercial spaceports scattered across the United States, according to the FAA—up from three a decade ago—and at least four more are in the pipeline under FAA licensing review.

Some believe the recent surge is the beginning of things to come. Once the exclusive domain of federal governments, space travel has evolved rapidly in the last decade into a commercial money-making venture for companies looking to scoop up lucrative government research and supply contracts, and to meet a burgeoning corporate demand. Television, communications, imaging, research, global positioning systems, academic interests, and more are looking to private firms to help them get equipment into orbit.

Infographic showing the current commercial space payload landscape

Spurred by these and other prospects, such as recently passed legislation that allows companies to keep resources harvested from celestial bodies, the private space industry has attracted unprecedented levels of investment funding in recent years. The private sector has invested about $10 billion into the commercial space industry over the last two years, more than doubling investment totals in the previous eight years combined, according to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry advocacy group.

Not surprisingly, leaps in innovation have followed. Large and well-funded companies, such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, have successfully launched, landed, and, in the case of SpaceX, reused rockets, drastically reducing per-launch costs. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has taken more than 700 deposits for space tourists to experience low Earth orbit flights—short-duration flights at an altitude of 2,000 kilometers or less—at $250,000 per flight, which could begin as soon as this year. Dozens of other companies such as Boeing, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corp., Stratolaunch, Vector, and others have moved forward aggressively with new rocket testing and research.

Much of this growth has been aided by NASA, which as policy has been actively trying to grow the commercial space industry for more than a decade. The U.S. government’s stance since at least 2006 has been that a more robust commercial space industry will spur innovation, advance U.S. interests, and will result in cheaper access to space for industry and taxpayers. Already, NASA has largely handed off to private companies more routine low Earth orbit missions, such as supply runs to the International Space Station, freeing up NASA for more ambitious deep-space exploration projects and manned missions to Mars.

“It is no different than what NASA did with aeronautics many years ago, back when it used be only the government flying airplanes—ultimately, we got to a place where it made sense for commercial entities to do that,” Scott said. “We feel like we are there now with space. It is beginning more and more to be smart business for companies to provide services in low Earth orbit, especially with the development of smaller, cheaper satellites.”

As was the case with the commercialization of the commercial air travel industry, the supporting infrastructure is essential for growth. Today, almost all of the nation's commercial spaceports, such as Space Florida at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority at Wallops Flight Facility, piggyback on existing government-built Air Force or NASA flight facilities. Spaceport America in New Mexico became the nation's first commercial space facility built without existing government infrastructure when it opened in 2008. The proposed Spaceport Camden would be another. Other hopeful future launch facilities in Colorado and Florida are currently undergoing FAA review.

A breakdown of the estimated $335 billion annual global space industry

AS MORE “FROM-SCRATCH” commercial facilities like Camden are licensed and built without assistance from existing government-built infrastructure, the lack of national consensus standards about how to design, build, and oversee them safely could present issues and put AHJs in a bind and without resources to assist, Scott said. With no standard approach, even government spaceport facilities can differ slightly based on which agency built them and when.

“You’ll find different layouts, including the distances between launch pads, where fuel tanks can be stored, how far apart fuel tanks can be stored, how far you have your liquid oxygen from your liquid hydrogen from your liquid methane—it’s all going to be different depending on what agency you're dealing with,” Scott said. “It is going to be really important as we transition into a commercial world that we are very clear about the hazards and how to specifically go about mitigating those hazards.”

To provide more clarity for developers, enforcers, and the industry, NASA has submitted a request to NFPA to consider the creation of a new standard on spaceports. The proposed document would “provide guidance on the construction and operations of facilities used to house, maintain, and deploy rockets, space planes, and other similar vehicles,” according to the project proposal. The NFPA Standards Council has not yet taken action on the request.

Other NFPA-related activity is already underway, however. Last summer, the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) contracted with the University of Maryland to conduct a comprehensive review of the existing standards and guidance on spaceports, the known fire hazards they present, and any gaps that may exist. The advisory panel includes Scott, as well as representatives from SpaceX, the FAA, the fire chief at the Wallops Flight Facility, and others. The report will be released in April.

“Our goal was to take these pieces of existing guidance, put them together, and try to index where everything is,” said Michael Gollner, a professor of fire protection engineering at Maryland, who co-authored the report. “It is up to the project’s technical panel to decide where we go next. Do we need a standard to pull this information together? Do we need guidelines? How do we get resources to local authorities? Who can they reach out to? I hope that is the discussion that comes from this review.”

A lack of national consensus standards has not slowed Spaceport Camden, according to officials. It has, however, required the group to be resourceful.

Andrew Nelson, president and founder of Nelson Aerospace Consulting Associates and chair of the Spaceport Subcommittee at the Commercial Space Federation, has been helping Camden through the FAA's spaceport permitting application. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for any new spaceport is FAA’s required Environmental Impact Statement, which evaluates a spaceport’s affect on the surrounding environment and communities. Concurrently, the spaceport must also complete a safety analysis as part of FAA 14 CFR Part 420, License to Operate a Launch Site, which is where Nelson, the former CEO of a rocket company, comes in.

In addition to reviewing the site layout and location, the FAA demands an explosive siting evaluation that details proposed explosive hazard facilities and the actual and minimal allowable distances between them, as well as the quantities and types of fuels they contain. Applicants must also submit provisions for handling and storing fuels; a plan to restrict access to the site; and a plan for launch-site accident investigations.

Those reviews, which Nelson calls “complex but straightforward,” are sufficient to ensure a safe design and operation, he contended. “The FAA’s first mission is the safety of the public, and they take that role very seriously,” he told me when asked if current regulations are enough to ensure safety as the commercial space industry scales up. “I don't have any fear that there are going to be novices that come into this industry and cause problems. There are just too many levels of oversight.”

The oversight does not end when a spaceport receives its operation permit—the FAA also reviews and permits each individual launch from the site, checking specific safety measures are followed for the type of rocket being launched.

Map of the United States showing all the locations of commercial spaceport launch sites and proposed sites

Still, the FAA admits there are knowledge gaps, specifically when it comes to converting existing airports into spaceports. The FAA is currently reviewing a permit application from the Adams County (Colorado) Board of County Commissioners to operate a commercial space launch site at the Front Range Airport in Watkins, Colorado. A few of the 10 licensed commercial spaceports in the U.S. today were also once airports, including the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California.

In a statement to NFPA Journal, the FAA said that it is hopeful that the FPRF literature review on spaceport safety codes and standards will help the administration to “better understand any gaps between existing standards and guidance and future integrated commercial space operations on airports. The office is seeing an increasing trend of airports seeking launch and reentry site licenses. More information is needed to determine whether existing aircraft rescue firefighting techniques, equipment, agents, training, etc., applies, or if additional guidance or standards are necessary for these dual-use airports.”

IF NASA’S REQUEST is granted and NFPA’s Standards Council opts to move forward to create a new standard on spaceports—the soonest it would likely consider the request is in August—the document would likely focus on design and operations, risk management at spaceports, emergency management planning, fire protection systems, and firefighter operations, said Brian O’Connor, an engineer at NFPA who has begun looking into the issue. Most of the guidance would likely be pulled from existing standards that the FPRF study identified as pertaining to spaceports. Just collecting those in one place for AHJs “is one big benefit that could help right away,” O’Connor said. “As I'm looking at the government guidance that's already there, much of it is difficult to find and hard to get access to.”

One related effort to do this has already begun. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation recently partnered with ASTM International to launch a committee focused on developing consensus standards and recommended practices for the commercial spaceflight industry. The main areas of focus will be the design, manufacturing, and operational use of vehicles used for spaceflight, as well as human spaceflight standards, according to the committee's scope. However, the group’s subcommittee on spaceports, for which Nelson is a vice chair, has begun delving into facility standards as well. So far the committee has drafted a standard guide for storage, use, and handling of liquid rocket propellants, which references NFPA 30, Flammable and Combustible Liquids; NFPA 55, Compressed Gases and Cryogenic Fluids; NFPA 59A, Production, Storage, and Handling of Liquefied Natural Gas; and NFPA 407, Aircraft Fuel Servicing.

“This is one of those documents that says, ‘Hey guys, if you're going to do this, here are all of the things that are out there that you should use.’ I think eventually, as we get into it, there will be more need for documents like this,” said Nelson. “We are all engineers and all practical, and we don't believe in reinventing the wheel. If someone has already invented a wheel, we should apply it and use it.”

Other related NFPA standards may also help, O'Connor said, noting NFPA 1127, High Powered Rocketry; NFPA 1122, Model Rocketry; NFPA 409, Aircraft Hangars; NFPA 495, Explosive Materials Code, and other airport and fueling codes and standards. None, however, quite hit the mark on something as complex as a spaceport. “We have a lot of things that just barely miss it,” O’Connor said.

That’s concerning to folks like Scott, who aren’t sure if there will be enough guidance to make sure the industry can grow safely, especially considering the potential velocity of that growth as more communities like Camden peer into the future and see dollar signs and rocket ships. Either way, he is sure that more spaceports are on the way.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Spaceworks Enterprises INC