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US Awards Contract to Build Prototype Sea-Based Space Launch Infrastructure

sea-based launch
Using a liftboat a demonstration was conducted in May 2023 (Evolution Space)

Published Jun 7, 2024 3:46 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Defense Innovation Unit, an office within the U.S. Department of Defense, issued awards to develop a novel method for sea-based space launch. According to The Spaceport Company which received the awards, the prototype is intended to demonstrate the launch capabilities to orbit and test autonomous-like features of the sea launch vessel after the company completed the first-ever launch in U.S. waters just a year ago.

“A sea-based launch platform is a strategically significant capability that increases equatorial launch access while enabling responsive launch coordination by avoiding high-traffic airspace,” DIU said in its announcement. The office which works across the Department of Dense is charged with leveraging commercial solutions and also aims to aid in accelerating the adoption of emerging commercial technologies both for the military and commercial applications. They called the ability to rapidly deliver cargo to space “presently underdeveloped.”

"Demand for launch sites exceeds supply, and building new launch sites on land is blocked by environmental concerns and community opposition. Furthermore, commercial launch companies seek a future with fleets of rockets delivering tons of cargo to and from orbit on an hourly basis," said Tom Marotta, CEO of The Spaceport Company. “The only viable way to build enough launch site infrastructure to support such a vision is to build it on ships at sea.”

The company had previously said that the national security community was looking at the evolving need for a flexible and agile launch capability. Satellites are also growing in demand for the commercial industry both to advance communications capabilities as well as applications tied to digitalization as well as the future capabilities including autonomous ships and self-driving cars and trucks.

 

Video from May 23, 2023, test launch from the liftboat

 

The Spaceport Company working with partner Evolution Space conducted the first-ever launch in U.S. waters in May 2023. Multiple rockets were launched in one day from a modified ship from Louisiana-based EBI Liftboats. The Gary Chiasson Elevator was positioned in the Gulf of Mexico for the tests. According to the companies, the demonstration successfully tested all the procedures necessary to conduct an orbital-class launch including regulatory approvals from the FAA and U.S. Coast Guard, scheduling, control of public access, range surveillance, hazard clearance, airspace integration, anomaly response, and remote launch vehicle ignition at sea.

China’s space company Galactic Energy conducted its first sea-based launch in September 2023. They launched four low Earth orbit satellites for another private Chinese company using a Ceres-1 solid rocket. So far in the U.S. several private companies have looked at the possibility of sea-based launches. Jeff Bezos’s space company Blue Origin acquired a former Ro/Ro vessel as a possible launch and retrieval platform but later sold the vessel for scrap. SpaceX uses barges for rocket retrieval after launch.

As the latest step in the program called the Novel Response Space Delivery Program, DIU awarded the contracts to The Spaceport Company to construct and demonstrate foundational maritime launch technologies within the next 12 months. Last year, DIU awarded the company a $1.5 million contract for the design and development of the mobile sea-based spaceport. DIU is following a phased approach and expects to award additional contracts under the NRSD program in the future.