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OPINION SPACE
Why So Many Spaceports
by Launchspace Staff
Bethesda MD (SPX) Mar 10, 2009


All in all, there are some 20 active, or soon to be active, space launch sites around the world. Last year the total worldwide orbital launch count was 68. Simple arithmetic tells us that the average number of launches for each site is around three.

Just last week it was reported that China would soon start construction of a new space launch center in the southernmost Hainan Province. Apparently, the State Council and Central Military Commission approved the new spaceport in late 2008.

According to the report this new site will boast high capacity and low costs. One might think this new launch site is badly needed due to high launch demand, but the truth is the world has plenty of launch sites already.

A quick survey shows active space launch sites at Alcantara in Brazil, XiChang and Shuang Cheng Tzu in China, Baikonur in Kazakhstan, Kapustin Yar in Russia, Plesetsk in Russia, Kourou in French Guiana, Sriharikota in India, Palmachim in Israel and Kagoshima and Tanegashima in Japan. In addition, we now have a new site in Iran, and North Korea may soon have a launch site.

South Korea is also developing a site. Of course, there are four active sites within the 50 states: Cape Canaveral, Vanderberg AFB, Wallops Island and Kodiac. Don't forget that Sea Launch has an ocean site in the South Pacific.

All in all, there are some 20 active, or soon to be active, space launch sites around the world. Last year the total worldwide orbital launch count was 68. Simple arithmetic tells us that the average number of launches for each site is around three.

A rational person might ask, "How can these countries justify all of the launch sites?" The profit motive is obviously not involved in most cases. For example, Tanegashima and Kapustin Yar each had only one launch in 2008. Wallops Island, Palmachim and Kagoshima had no launches.

From an investment point of view, these are losing propositions. On the other hand, Baikonur had 19 launches, Kourou and Plesetsk each had six, Sea Launch had five. The Cape Canaveral area had seven launches, four of which were attributed to the Shuttle.

There were only four launches each at Vandenberg and XiChang. Tallying all launches according to country, Russia has the lion's share at 27 with the U.S. second at 16. Based on these numbers it should be easy to justify some of the sites controlled by Russia and the U.S.

But, if every site had to be justified on the basis of profit and loss, we would have significantly fewer spaceports. So, what is the real justification for most of the sites?

There are two fundamental reasons for investing in launch sites that cannot possibly survive on a profit-and-loss basis: geopolitical and strategic. Many countries create spaceports to demonstrate their prowess as spacefaring nations.

Any country with this capability can claim membership in a very elite club. If we count every one of the 18 member states that make up the European Space Agency, there are about 25 spacefaring nations. Most of these countries have the additional capability of launching strategic missiles.

In fact, for many of these countries' missile development preceded the ability to launch satellites, and many launch vehicle designs have evolved from long-range missiles.

We must conclude that many countries invest in spaceports and launch vehicles in order to reap the benefits they provide in terms of national security and as instruments of foreign policy.

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