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Not So Private Space

Spaceport Financial Documents

None of the five US orbital rocket spaceports generates enough private investment or revenue to support its operations. Space industry professionals have noted that startup space companies are mostly unable to obtain long-term financing and investments resulting in several recent marque bankruptcies.

The documents linked in this story prove that the real weakness of the commercial space launch industry is because it is supported primarily by government funding and subsidies. Private investment has been a small proportion of the massive amounts of money required for space launch operations because the uncertain payback is many years in the future, if at all.

Recent public-domain financial documents for each of the commercial spaceports hosting commercial launches are linked below:

Alaska's Kodiak spaceport gets 26% of its operating costs from commercial fees and 74% from the US Department of Defense. Kodiak's spaceport CEO is paid $317,466 and commands 13 total employees including only four spaceport technical positions. By comparison, Georgia’s governor receives $175,000 and directs more than 68,000 active employees.

Wallops Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) experienced $15,922,868 Net Loss on total revenues of $12,291,478. Virginia taxpayers injected $19,133,333 last year. MARS shares support infrastructure systems with NASA's Wallops Flight Facility and launches Antares rocket missions to the International Space Station under a NASA contract. MARS income includes operations of an Unmanned Aircraft Systems research Airfield.

Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Stations get 8% from commercial launch fees, the remainder from US taxpayers. Canaveral and Vandenberg are critical components of the US strategic space command. Commercial use of Air Force facilities has emerged as a significant source of space industry launch capacity as they re-purpose retired launch pads and technical properties. The FY2020 Air FOrce Budget indicates that 32 SpaceX launches are planned. In the first 6 months of the fiscal year, SPaceX has launched only 9 times. SpaceX would have to launch a Falcon 9 rocket every week through the end of the year to meet their plan. Since they have only historically launched 2 rockets twice in consecutive weeks, it is likely there will be a revenue shortfall at Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, and KSC.

Kennedy Space Center earns 14% from commercial and space tourism fees but requires almost $2 Billion more from US taxpayers. Space Florida gets $10 million a year from state taxpayers to promote Florida space operations. Space Florida canceled plans for Shiloh Spaceport in 2014 due to lack of demand and newly-utilized capacity at Cape Canaveral. But Camden officials forged ahead for the same launch pads that Space Florida canceled. NASA has arranged for new Launch Complex 48, with two launch pads, to accommodate small rockets doubling the planned capacity for Spaceport Camden.

Camden will have to compete with spaceports that have existing, fully-funded infrastructure a company can rent in Florida (or California or Virginia) at a fraction of its cost. Page 26 of the "NASA Cost Pricing" document shows that existing infrastructure that cost taxpayers $11,518,895 can be leased from NASA by a private company for $109,391 annually, a payback to taxpayers taking 105 years.

Kennedy Space Center Salaries should be the best in the industry. It's the premier spaceport receiving funding from NASA and all major launch companies. But the salaries averaging $75,000 mentioned often by Spaceport Camden promoters are rare. 68% of the civil service jobs at KSC are clerical and administrative. On April 20, 2020, ZipRecruiter reported that annual pay for 59% of KSC on-site and off-site jobs is $19,012 to $34,221, while only 4% earn more than $60,000. 63% of KSC posts pay less than the average Florida salary.

Spaceport Camden jobs will not produce tax revenue unless the workers live in Camden County. Worker's paychecks are mostly spent where they reside. If they live in Glynn, Charlton, or Nassau, or fly-in from headquarters, their job does not help pay for the spaceport or benefit local businesses.

SpaceX Boca Chica "spaceport" is a beach-front industrial site posing as a future launch site. SpaceX received a favorable decision in its 2014 Environmental Impact Statement and FAA Record of Decision to launch Falcon 9 rockets from the Texas site but has not sought an FAA site operator's license. We have previously reported that the FAA has approved several EIS written-reevaluations (not allowing public participation) allowing SpaceX to perform risky, experimental testing with far larger rockets than were proposed under the EIS & ROD. As a consequence, SpaceX Boca Chica is not a licensed spaceport. SpaceX has had several well-documented fires and explosions impacting public property and state-owned land.

SpaceX has created about 500 temporary jobs at Boca Chica to develop its next-generation rocket. Most of the on-site facilities are large tent-like buildings suggesting a temporary commitment. Engineering is retained at SpaceX headquarters in California. In February, SpaceX announced it has leased an existing portside factory at the Port of Long Beach (California) where it, “will manufacture the 100-passenger Starship spacecraft and the giant rocket Super Heavy. Water access is needed, Thompson said, to transport the huge rockets on barges to launch sites in Florida or Texas.” (Source)

Most jobs at Boca Chica required skilled workers like welders and forklift operators. Workers' campers populate the former residential area of Boca Chica that has been mostly acquired by SpaceX. The Dallas News reported in 2014, "State and local officials gave Musk, a billionaire, what he and his lobbyists sought: about $20 million of financial incentives, laws changed to close a public beach during launches and legal protection from noise complaints." They also gave him the benefit of eminent domain so Cameron County could take any private property SpaceX would need. 100% of Boca Chica operations are paid by SpaceX, which has received more than $5.5 billion from NASA and the Department of Defense. Elon Musk said, "we could not have started SpaceX, nor could we have reached this point without the help of NASA." SpaceX receives the majority of the government's financial assistance paid to private space companies.

"Spaceport" Camden is 100% financed by Camden taxes. There have been no space company investors. Neither the Georgia Legislature, NASA, Department of Defense, or the Federal government have contributed any funding to the Camden spaceport.

As of mid-January, more than $8,000,000 has been taken from Camden County taxpayers. More than $7.9 million has been spent out of Camden County:

Source: Tribune & Georgian

COMING UP: We'll examine Camden County officials cannot provide a Spaceport Business Plan and Operating Budget for Spaceport Camden. Using public-domain documents, we'll look at the economic failures of all vertical-launch rocket spaceports.

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