Cecil Field gets spaceport license – but will anyone use it?

After years of effort, Florida’s Cecil Field got some good news Monday: they got their commercial spaceport license from the FAA. The former naval air station outside Jacksonville, currently used primarily for cargo and general aviation, will now be able to host horizontal launches of reusable launch vehicles for suborbital space tourism and potentially orbital launches as well.

There’s just one problem: it’s not clear if anyone will use Cecil Field as a spaceport any time soon. The license covers only horizontally-launched vehicles, so vertically-launched suborbital RLVs, like those proposed by Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, and Masten Space Systems, would not be able to use Cecil. Also, the license apparently covers only some classes of horizontal vehicles, as a section of the final environmental assessment (EA) for Cecil’s spaceport license states:

Under the Proposed Action, JAA would offer the launch site to launch operators for two types of horizontal, piloted RLVs, referred to as Concept X and Concept Z launch vehicles. The Concept X vehicle contains two turbojet engines and two rocket engines powered by Jet-A fuel and liquid oxygen (LOX). The Concept Z vehicle consists of two components – a carrier aircraft mated with a suborbital launch vehicle. The carrier vehicle would have turbo jet engines while the launch vehicle would use a hybrid rocket engine powered by nitrous oxide and hydroxylterminated polybutadiene.

The Concept X vehicle sounds like Rocketplane Global’s XP vehicle (although the XP has one rocket engine, not two) while the Concept Z vehicle is clearly SpaceShipTwo. What’s not included here is a vehicle that takes off horizontally under rocket power, like XCOR’s Lynx.

The problem for Cecil is that Rocketplane Global is currently in stasis, with no guarantee that it will resume development of its vehicle (which would fly from Cecil 48 times a year, according to the EA). Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic is committed to Spaceport America, and Cecil Field hasn’t been included among the other sites the company has publicly stated it’s interested in, such as Sweden and the UAE. Moreover, the EA only anticipated four flights a year of the Concept Z vehicle.

Todd Linder, of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, tells Reuters that his agency is working with “several potential customers”, but declined to identify them. “The big difference between Cecil Field and the New Mexico spaceport is that we have facilities already in place,” he said. That’s true, but arguably the bigger difference is that Spaceport America has a tenant signed up, and Cecil Field doesn’t. Infrastructure is necessary, but as facilities like Oklahoma Spaceport can attest, they’re alone not sufficient.

One final note: in a blog post announcing the license, Space Florida president Frank DiBello noted that Cecil Field isn’t the only facility that the state is contemplating developing for supporting suborbital spaceflight. “This capability – in addition to similar potential sites currently being researched at Kennedy Space Center and in Southern Florida – is critical to providing our state with the competitive edge it needs to be a key player in the U.S. space tourism industry,” he writes. KSC has the Shuttle Landing Facility, a runway that will soon no longer be needed for its primary mission of supporting shuttle landings. The southern Florida reference is less clear, as no specific proposal for a facility there has been announced.

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