Across the U.S., the Spaceport Race Is On

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The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Vandenberg, Calif., in May.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Vandenberg, Calif., in May.


Photo:

ZUMAPRESS.com

Camden County, Ga., played a bit part in aerospace history as home to a 1960s plant that built and tested NASA rocket motors. Now, county leaders want to revive that heritage with a new commercial spaceport.

“We can be part of the new space race in the 21st Century,” said

Steve Howard,

project leader and the Camden County administrator.

Companies like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin LLC and

Elon Musk’s

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, are investing millions of dollars and trying to lead the way in a space gold rush. The Trump administration has emphasized a growing role for the private sector in space exploration and this week presented a plan for a sixth military branch dedicated to space.

Local and state officials across the U.S. are trying to get in on the action.

A rendering of Spaceport Camden.

A rendering of Spaceport Camden.


Photo:

Spaceport Camden

There are now 10 licensed commercial spaceports in the U.S., from Alaska to Florida, double the number in 2004. Some of them grew out of existing government launch sites. At least two other proposed spaceports are under federal review: Spaceport Camden and Spaceport Colorado, in Adams County, Colo.

Despite the enthusiasm, the commercial sector is still nascent. Some facilities have hosted only a few launches, or none at all.

“I would caution against irrational exuberance,” said

Frank Slazer,

vice president of space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group.

The global space industry, including government and commercial activities, reached $384 billion in 2017, compared with $207 billion in 2007, according to Space Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group. It could top $1.1 trillion by 2040, Morgan Stanley Research estimated last year. The U.S. space industry reached $158 billion in 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration reported.

Private investment in commercial space companies has swelled in the past decade, reaching a record $3.9 billion world-wide in 2017, according to investment firm Space Angels.

“The commercial sector is really driving the industry,” said

Daniel Hicks,

chief executive of Spaceport America, a commercial site in New Mexico. “It’s an exciting time.”

One expanding area: the creation of small rockets that can lift miniature satellites to low-earth orbit to provide internet coverage and other services.

Rocket Lab, a Huntington Beach, Calif., startup focused on such launches, is considering contracting with spaceports in Alaska, California, Florida or Virginia for a U.S. launch site, said Chief Executive

Peter Beck.

A key priority is finding “a site that can support a relatively high launch frequency” of at least once a month, he said. The company expects to announce its decision later this month.

Florida’s top contender, Cape Canaveral Spaceport—which encompasses the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station—is one of the busiest existing facilities. Though the region took a hit with the end of the U.S. space shuttle program in 2011, it is now bustling with commercial activity.

The spaceport offers a rich aerospace history, plenty of launch infrastructure and a supply of workers—benefits companies seek, said

Dale Ketcham,

a vice president at Space Florida, the state’s spaceport authority.

SpaceX, which has created about 630 jobs in the area, launches rockets from Cape Canaveral and has outlined plans to build a booster-processing facility and launch-control center there. Blue Origin is building a $200 million rocket-manufacturing plant that is projected to create 330 jobs and plans to add a new testing facility.

The return on spaceport investments can be slow. Spaceport America in New Mexico—a $220 million facility financed by the state and local counties—stalled when its main tenant, Virgin Galactic, lost a rocket-powered aircraft in a 2014 crash.

But Mr. Hicks said the payoff is finally arriving. Virgin is beginning to move staff to New Mexico—about 40 so far, with another 100 or so to come—as the company prepares to send passengers to suborbital flight. The spaceport also has landed tenants such as

Boeing
Co.

and UP Aerospace Inc.

As the federal government made clear in the past decade that it would increasingly rely on the private sector for space programs, officials in Houston, home to the Johnson Space Center, worried about the local economic impact. That prompted the creation of the Houston Spaceport—the most recently licensed facility, in 2015, at Ellington Airport.

Drawing on Houston Airport System funds, Ellington invested $13 million in a new air-traffic control tower that can handle aerospace launches. It is now seeking approval for an $18.5 million project to set up utilities and infrastructure on a site that could eventually house a spaceport terminal.

“This development will serve as the detonator,” said

Arturo Machuca,

general manager at Ellington Airport.

Write to Arian Campo-Flores at arian.campo-flores@wsj.com

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