The Case for US Commercial Space

The US is in a heated commercial space race with China, and early indications are that we are losing. While US policymakers debate the preferred state for a Department of Defense headquarters, China is launching ahead with its commercial space ambitions. China’s acceleration in the commercial space industry is evidenced by the successful launch of a methane-liquid oxygen rocket by LandSpace on July 12, 2023, beating out US rivals, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, in the race to launch carrier vehicles fuelled by methane, which is deemed less polluting, safer, cheaper, and a suitable propellant in a reusable rocket. The implications of China’s significant methane-fueled rocket are not just technologically impressive but have enormous economic consequences for the commercial space industry. The Space Foundation’s July 25, 2023, Q2 2023 report shows an annual growth of the global space economy at $564B, with conservative estimates of $800B in the next five years. The US will stifle space innovation if it fails to distinguish between commercial and government roles in this industry transition.

The roots of this government-to-commercial transition began when Intelsat launched the first commercial communications satellite in 1965. Another significant transition milestone occurred in 1999, with the launch of the first commercial earth imaging satellite, IKONOS. After SpaceX’s 2008 launch of Falcon-1, the global space economy reached a tipping point as the first commercial rocket and reduced access to space by 50%. 2012 saw the first commercial resupply capsule to the International Space Station, followed by orbital tourists in 2021. The space economy in the next decade will include tourism, space stations, mining distant planets, Mars habitats, space-based internet, and data centers.

Ultra-wealthy individuals have taken early note of this transition and have made enormous investments in the commercial space economy, including manufacturing, launch vehicles, space tourism, and satellite communications. In addition to the ultra-wealthy individuals, investment banks are projecting that the global space economy will be a $1-3 trillion economy by 2040.


Despite global recognition of this government-to-commercial transition, access to space is one area that the US government, specifically the US Space Force, still needs to be ready to let go of. The problem is that the US almost entirely relies on the 1980s government launch architecture and services. Between July 25, 2022, and July 25, 2023, the United States launched 76 successful rockets. 75 or 98.7% of these US rocket launches occurred at federal ranges such as Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (SFS), Vandenberg SFS, Wallops Flight Facility, and White Sands Missile Range. In other words, US access to space depends on bloated and bureaucratic organizations that need more innovation, organization, and knowledge to compete in this global commercial market. A recent example of the speed of bureaucracy was the President of the United States’ announcement that the US Space Command Headquarters would move to Alabama in January 2021. Two and half years, a decision has been finally made public.

A more relevant example of limited launch capacity is the Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg SFS reservation system. Standard operating procedures for the Space Force is to provide rocket companies with primary and backup launch dates that are usually 24 hours apart. In other words, for each “launch,” the customer has two “attempts.” The backup date is unused if the rocket company launches on its primary date. Furthermore, the scrub rate for launches is 20% or even higher, depending on the season. Scrub is when a launch campaign begins and stops before the launch occurs. The most frequent cause of a launch scrub is the weather.

A more accurate federal range capacity should include “attempts” and not “launches” and account for the high percentage of scrubs. In the future, when multiple rocket providers are trying to launch, there will be competition for range resources even if the launch vehicle is not ready to launch. Commercial companies “park” on the launch schedule because there isn’t a financial penalty if the company does not use its launch dates.

Figure 1 includes the National Security, Commercial, Civil, and Test & Evaluation projections for Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg SFS. A 20 percent scrub rate is applied to the predicted number of launches and presents the “most likely” scenario for the Space Force. Furthermore, because each customer receives a primary and backup launch date, the Space Force has to plan for “two attempts” for each “launch.” The figure demonstrates that the Space Force must support at least 350 launch attempts, almost one per day, as early as 2024.



 Figure 1:  Cape Canaveral and Vanderberg SFS National Security, Commercial, Civil, and Test & Evaluation Launch Forecast[1]

[1] Launch and Test Range System Integrated Support Contract Follow-on Industry Day Presentation (December 13, 2021).

“The US Space Force is responsible for organizing, training, and equipping Guardians to conduct global space operations that enhance the way our joint and coalition forces fight while also offering decision-makers military options to achieve national objectives.” [1]  With a mission focused on national security, it is surprising to note the percentage of Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Space Force resources allocated for commercial launches.  90% of Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg SFS launches are currently commercial.[2]  Figure 2 includes FAA-licensed or commercial launches with a 20% scrub rate and primary and backup launch attempts.

[1] (n.d.).  United States Space Force Mission. Space-Force/Mission.

[2] (n.d.).  Advanced Manifest.  Rocketlaunch.Live.

Figure 2:  Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg SFS Commercial Launch Forecast

Further complicating the situation are the multiple launch providers that will begin launching more frequently in 2024.  Currently, the vast majority of launches from Space Force ranges are from a single commercial rocket company.  In the next two years, the federal ranges must support 3-4 rocket companies projecting a once-a-week launch cadence.

There are other answers than providing the Space Force with more funding and control of the commercial space economy.  A house amendment in the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act allows the Space Force to increase the amount of money it charges commercial rocket companies for wear and tear on base infrastructure, setting a dangerous precedent.  The Space Force is subsidizing commercial launch operations with taxpayer funding.  US law authorizes the Space Force to provide minimum support to commercial rocket companies only if services are not commercially acquired.  In other words, the government is not the “first” but the “last” provider of commercial launch services, and only after they have certified that there are no domestic sources commercially available.

Instead of increasing government-subsidized commercial launch services, Congressman Waltz pressed the Chief of Space Operations General Chance Saltzman at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on April 27, 20023, on why the US Government was illegally competing with the commercial space industry.  “It probably does warrant us going back and relooking to say, now that there are commercial entities capable of providing complete end-to-end launch services, does there need to be a relook at the model?” Saltzman said.[1]

It is time for the US government to comply with the congressional mandate, end the government-led monopoly for launch services, and allow commercial competition, leading to sustained innovation.  This delineation of roles and responsibilities focuses the Space Force on national security while the commercial sector focuses on science, exploration, and innovation.  The US is standing at a fork in the road and must decide whether to continue down the well-worn path of bureaucracy and unleash innovation so the United States of America can continue to be the undisputed world leader of the global space economy.

Burton Catledge is the Founder and CEO of Launch On Demand.  Launch On Demand provides FAA launch/reentry licensing, commercial day of launch, and spaceport development services.  He is a retired Air Force colonel and has supported over 50 national security, commercial, and civil launches.  Before retiring from the Air Force, he commanded all launch range activities at Patrick Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and Kennedy Space Center from 2016-2018.  Burton also served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and commanded range operations at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

[1](n.d.).  Space Force Hopes to Recoup Costs of Commercial Launches.  Defense One.

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