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Defense Innovation Unit Awards The Spaceport Company Sea-Based Space Launch Demo Contract

The Spaceport Company has been award a contract by the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, aimed at advancing sea-based space launch technologies.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Mon Jun 10 2024Written by Zac Aubert

The Spaceport Company has been award a contract by the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, aimed at advancing sea-based space launch technologies. The initiative by the DIU marks a significant step in demonstrating the potential for launching satellites and other cargo from the ocean, enhancing both military and commercial capabilities.

The Spaceport Company, one of the awarded recipients of the new DIU contract, is spearheading the development of this novel launch method. The prototype being developed under these contracts will showcase the ability to reach orbit and test autonomous features of the sea launch vessel. This comes on the heels of their pioneering effort last year, where they achieved the first-ever launch from U.S. waters.

“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" - DIU

DIU’s role spans across the Department of Defense, leveraging commercial solutions to expedite the integration of emerging technologies for both defense and commercial applications. They emphasized the current inadequacy in the ability to rapidly deliver cargo to space, describing it as "presently underdeveloped."

"Demand for launch sites exceeds supply, and building new launch sites on land is blocked by environmental concerns and community opposition. Furthermore, commercial launch companies seek a future with fleets of rockets delivering tons of cargo to and from orbit on an hourly basis....The only viable way to build enough launch site infrastructure to support such a vision is to build it on ships at sea.” - Tom Marotta, CEO of The Spaceport Company

The national security community has shown interest in this flexible and agile launch capability, as the need for satellites grows in both the commercial and defense sectors. These satellites are critical for advancing communication technologies and digitalization, supporting future applications like autonomous ships and self-driving vehicles.

In May 2023, The Spaceport Company, in collaboration with Evolution Space, successfully conducted the first-ever sea-based launch in U.S. waters. Multiple rockets were launched from a modified ship, the Gary Chiasson Elevator, stationed in the Gulf of Mexico. The demonstration, utilizing a vessel from Louisiana-based EBI Liftboats, successfully tested all necessary procedures for an orbital-class launch. These included regulatory approvals from the FAA and U.S. Coast Guard, public access control, range surveillance, hazard clearance, airspace integration, anomaly response, and remote launch vehicle ignition at sea.

China has also entered the sea-based launch arena, with Galactic Energy conducting its first such launch in September 2023. Using a Ceres-1 solid rocket, they deployed four low Earth orbit satellites for a private Chinese company.

In the U.S., other private companies have explored similar possibilities. Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, acquired a former Ro/Ro vessel as a potential launch and retrieval platform but later sold it for scrap. SpaceX utilizes barges for rocket retrieval after launch; and has considered using ocean platforms in the future for its Starship program.

The contracts awarded to The Spaceport Company are part of DIU’s Novel Response Space Delivery (NRSD) Program. This phased program seeks to develop and demonstrate foundational maritime launch technologies over the next 12 months. In the previous year, DIU had awarded The Spaceport Company $1.5 million for designing and developing a mobile sea-based spaceport. Moving forward, DIU plans to issue additional contracts under the NRSD program to further advance this innovative approach to space launch.