US Grants Contract for Prototype Sea-Based Space Launch Platform

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The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), an office within the U.S. Department of Defense, has issued awards to develop a novel method for sea-based space launch. The Spaceport Company, which received these awards, will create a prototype to demonstrate launch capabilities to orbit and test autonomous-like features of the sea launch vessel. This comes a year after the company completed the first-ever launch in U.S. waters.

Image by The Spaceport Company

“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,” stated the DIU. The office, which collaborates across the Department of Defense, aims to leverage commercial solutions and accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies for both military and commercial applications. They emphasized the underdevelopment of rapidly delivering cargo to space.

“Demand for launch sites exceeds supply, and building new launch sites on land faces environmental concerns and community opposition. Commercial launch companies envision 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.”

Previously, the national security community has recognized the evolving need for a flexible and agile launch capability. The commercial industry is also seeing increased demand for satellites to advance communications, digitalization, and future capabilities, including autonomous ships and self-driving vehicles.

The Spaceport Company, in collaboration with Evolution Space, conducted the first-ever launch in U.S. waters in May 2023. Multiple rockets were launched from a modified ship from Louisiana-based EBI Liftboats, with the Gary Chiasson Elevator positioned in the Gulf of Mexico. This demonstration successfully tested all necessary procedures for an orbital-class launch, including regulatory approvals, scheduling, public access control, 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, launching four low Earth orbit satellites using a Ceres-1 solid rocket. In the U.S., several private companies have explored sea-based launches. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin acquired a former Ro/Ro vessel for potential launch and retrieval but later sold it for scrap. SpaceX uses barges for rocket retrieval post-launch.

As part of the Novel Response Space Delivery Program, DIU awarded The Spaceport Company contracts to construct and demonstrate foundational maritime launch technologies within the next 12 months. This follows a $1.5 million contract last year for the design and development of a mobile sea-based spaceport. DIU is employing a phased approach and anticipates awarding additional contracts under the NRSD program in the future.

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