The Rocket Launching Race
The Ukraine war has dramatically reduced Space launch capacity and this will not return anytime soon. Burgeoning demand has triggered a Global race to build facilities to capture the trade and several nations are considering their position (literally and metaphorically). China is one, recently investing in Djibouti with an eye on the regional market and a substantial sovereign foothold in North East Africa. So, if nations wish to compete to secure some of this launch trade, they need to move fast.
The launch market is now an open goal and the opportunity, at 1700 satellites to orbit in 2023 and some 17,000 by the end of 2030, is a rich prize. Payloads of all natures – roles, sizes, functions – are in development and all manufacturers are hunting for a ride to orbit. Rocket manufacturers are scaling their number of vehicles per annum almost as fast as payloads, but they all need a location to blast off from. Horizontal is in rapid development, but the 19 Global vertical spaceports are multiplying fast with some 6 progressing through UK certification, Sweden pursuing Kiruna, and many others too.
China’s $1 billion ‘Belt and Road’ investment into Obock, N Djibouti, will enable constrained launch in the Indian Ocean Region, assuming internationally recognised safety criteria are observed,. It will also position another Chinese facility at another strategic trade choke point – the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, fo wider development and exploitation. China’s historic strategic infrastructure investments along the ‘string of pearls’ have been big projects, leveraged against host nation finance and planning freedoms, and benefiting from a Chinese workforce assuring remittances return to the homeland with the labour. But host nation default could lead to the repeal of sovereign rights (land, revenue, technology, etc) which would shift the nature of the launch complex.
If other nations want to ‘get into the Space market’, Spaceports are a great way to achieve that. Construction models can be easily replicated, materials are not overly sophisticated, construction and operation create low- and high-skilled jobs respectively, and the facility generates revenue. Provided the down-range launch track is free from third party hazards, the predicted custom suggests there are almost no risks, the largest of which is perhaps indecision to commit to construction, allowing others’ projects to accelerate and overtake.
The payload demand is high, and the benefits are significant, so Spaceports cannot come quick enough. But if nations want to be in this game, they need to move quickly to capture market share before others do.