An artist’s conception of Spaceport America, the world’s first fully commercial spaceport being built in New Mexico to support space tourism flights.
Tech Level: 9
Tech Level: 13
Tech Level: 14
Tech Level: 16
Spaceports have existed since the 1950s. Cape Kennedy in Florida, Edwards Air Force Base in Arizona, and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan are all examples of spaceports. In science fiction, they are an iconic mainstay of most futuristic settings, especially in space opera adventure tales. Mos Eisley (‘a wretched hive of scum and villainy’) from Star Wars is a very well known example.
Tech Level: 9
A spaceport is any centralized travel hub designed to handle the launching and landing of space vehicles. While the name has been applied to a wide variety of space facilities, a formal spaceport must handle three main functions:
–It must be able to oversee both the launching and landing of space vehicles. Any facility that can only handle launchings or only handle landings are more properly called Launch Facilities or Landing Facilities, respectively.
–It must be able to repair and perform maintenance on such vehicles on its grounds.
–It must be able to handle the transport of passengers and/or cargo to and from the aforementioned space-going vehicles.
In other words, they must be to spacecraft what seaports are to watercraft and what airports are to aircraft. Facilities may range from sparse and utilitarian, to sprawling and cutting edge.
Spaceport location is often key to its success. Because of all the different resources required for operation of a spaceport, they often need to be at the center of a large network of transportation and distribution. But this is also dependent on the needs of the nation or organization building and maintaining it. During the early Cold War, the need for secrecy about the specifics of this emerging technology was paramount, so new spaceports were located in isolated places where access could be easily controlled.
Even as the need for secrecy faded, spaceports continued to be built in more remote locations, both for the sprawling room that the building, maintenance, support, launching, and landing of spaceships need, and to help separate civilian populations from potential disaster should a launch or landing go wrong (as illustrated by the launch disaster in Xichang in China in 1996.) Even the world’s first fully commercial port, SpacePort America, is located in a desert.
This may not always be the case in the future. As spaceships become cheaper and more reliable in the coming decades, developers may want to cut costs and locate spaceports closer to already existing transportation and population hubs. Spaces that are close to, or even adjacent to, facilities such as airports, seaports, train lines, major highways, and so on would be highly desirable. Having the spaceport located close enough to a major city would also be a plus, allowing it to take advantage of a larger potential labor pool and allowing commercial development in the area that the spaceport could take advantage of. Older airports and seaports could even be converted into spaceports in whole or in part.
Spaceports that include megastructure launch systems (such as a space elevator or launch tower) may be located on mountaintops in order to ease altitude requirements of such artifacts. However, in most other cases spaceports will be located on large, flat expanses.
Some spaceports in science fiction are converted seaports, and have the spaceships moor in the water for servicing and maintenance, and launch directly from there. This is a motif in some science fiction anime, and helps to rationalize away why some of the ships in that genre are built with a strong resemblance to ocean-going warships (i.e., the need for mooring in water requires certain buoyant design characteristics.) Sometimes the spaceship may even have to fully submerge to be serviced in an underwater facility, as in the classic Gatchaman anime series.
A location as close to the equator as possible is also advantageous for a spaceport, as Earth’s rotation there can give a bigger velocity boost to launches than elsewhere on the planet.
The exact layout and facilities at any individual spaceport will vary wildly from one to another. But major features may include:
— A nexus of major roads or railways in the region in order to facilitate the large influx of different kinds of resources most spaceports will need. Since some assembly or maintenance facilities may be off-site, railways that can handle large multi-ton spacecraft components, or maybe even whole spacecraft, may be necessary.
— If the spaceport is located near a coast, it may have an adjacent seaport to help handle incoming and outgoing resources, cargo, passengers, and component parts. In the case of water-berthed spacecraft, the spaceport may be converted directly from an already-existing seaport.
— Runways to accommodate increased air traffic delivering resources, passengers, cargo, and component parts. This may be a fully developed and already existing airport located adjacent to the spaceport. In some cases, such as with spacecraft that can launch and land on runways, existing airports may simply be converted into spaceports, such as the case with the Mojave Air And Space Port.
— Landing pads to accommodate vertical take off and landing spacecraft, as is often seen in many science fiction sources.
— Hangers, bays, or assigned lots for storing spacecraft, and in some cases large buildings for assembly or disassembly of spacecraft from component parts, which also may serve as hangars or bays.
— Maintenance Facilities. These may be done in individual storage hangers or bays, or spacecraft may need to be moved to a centralized facility. Most spaceports will have a mixture of both, with routine maintenance and minor repairs being done in-hangar while overhauls and major damage would require moving the craft to a centralized, more extensively equipped facility.
— Fuel storage facilities. As most spacecraft fuel is potentially dangerous, and some need special consideration such as cryogenic temperatures, these are usually stored a good deal aways from the main spaceport facilities proper.
— Orbital-range or better sensor arrays, including radars, radio telescopes, visual telescopes, infrared sensors, and more. In some cases, however, some of these may be located off-site in order to take advantage of already-existing facilities.
— Orbital range or better communication facilities.
— Centralized command and control, aka ‘mission control.’ In airports this is the Control Tower; a spaceport may need to have a more extensive facility than a single tower, but the same principle applies. Most spaceports will also have one or more back-up facilities for use in an emergency.
— Dedicated emergency services to deal with crash landings, fire, and other unfortunate circumstances.
— Dedicated security forces.
— Its own dedicated power source or generators.
— Cargo and passenger terminals, to facilitate the loading and unloading of both. Unlike in most modern airports, passengers an cargo will likely be ferried out to and from the spacecraft, rather than having the spacecraft taxi right up to the terminal, in order to protect the terminal should something go catastrophically wrong with the spacecraft.
— Adjacent commercial and tourist districts. In the real world, spaceports accessible to the public are huge tourist draws. In science fiction, they are often the major hubs of commerce and trade. In both cases, many entrepreneurs will set up shop close by, often leading to districts dedicated to serving the spaceports’ personnel, passengers, and visitors. These will often include hotels, bars, restaurants, shops, museums, tourist attractions, ‘red light’ districts and more often centralized along the major roads leading to the spaceport. The quality of these commercial districts will vary wildly depending on many factors, from spit-polished corporate showcases to grungy and seedy underworld dives.
— Adjacent military facilities. Some (but not all) spaceports may be considered major military assets by their owning nation or organization, and will have a number of appropriate military assets and units placed nearby in order to protect it. This will be above and beyond the normal security forces most spaceports will have. Military facilities may range, depending on the spaceports’ strategic importance and perceived vulnerability, from a few barracks and a motorpool housing spaceport-attached troops, to a full-scale fully-outfitted base adjacent to the spaceport. In some cases, the spaceport may be created from an already existing military base and still serve in that capacity, as is the case with both the Vandenberg and Edwards Air Force Bases in the US.
— Space defenses. In science fiction settings, spaceports are almost always the single most important group of targets in any invasion or assault from space, either to be captured for use by the invading force or to be destroyed to deny their use by the enemy. While conventional military facilities attached to the spaceport may guard against conventional assaults, more sophisticated defenses may be needed to guard against orbital bombardment and/or invasions. These may include missiles silos, abm facilities, armored turrets sporting sophisticated weapons like lasers and particle beams, and maybe even deep bunkers housing meson guns. Spaceports may also keep combat drones and dedicated combat spacecraft on hand for such situations as well.
— Quarantine facilities. The earliest manned spaceflights made post-flight quarantine a mandatory practice, for fear that astronauts may inadvertently bring back a harmful space-borne infection. Today, this is no longer the case, as we know space itself is sterile and the chance of contracting an infection from a vacuum-resistant microbe can be statistically zeroed out. However, in science fiction settings, especially those with extensive and regular contact between far-flung human-populated worlds (due to fundamentally different molecular biology, alien biospheres seem very unlikely to give rise to human-threatening microbes) cross-world disease vectors become a real danger. Passengers and cargo will likely be extensively screened for potential microbial invaders, and if they’re detected, will be forced into quarantine for a certain amount of time until the infection can be dealt with. Threats from invasive animal and plant species (from both human and alien worlds) may also require quarantine procedures.
Tech Level: 13
These are spaceports built on deep-ocean platforms or artificial islands. They require the technology to be able to build large, anchored, deep-water surface facilities far from any landmass, which is estimated to come online at Tech Level 13. The reason for building a deep-ocean spaceport may include:
— For security reasons.
— To take advantage of certain weather patterns. For example, one proposal for building a space elevator outlined anchoring it onto a massive deep-ocean platform some distance off the western equatorial coast of South America, at a location known for having very mild weather and winds on average than most other places along the equator.
–To take even greater advantage of water-berthing for spacecraft, especially (as is the case in some scifi sources) when some of the spacecraft may be very massive and require deep water for their berthing.
— On science fiction worlds, there may be no landmasses sufficiently close to the equator, so a deep ocean platform may be the best solution.
Oceanic spaceports, because of potential restrictions on surface space, may be able to handle only vertical launches and landing, or ocean launches and landings. Runways may prove problematic.
Support facilities may be located under the main platform beneath the waves, or may be housed in a variety of surface ships of varying size that move from floating berth to floating berth to service each spaceship in turn. Or, it may be a combination of both approaches.
Some very advanced oceanic spaceports may be completely submersible for stealth reasons, rising above the waves only when needed to launch and receive spaceships.
Tech Level: 14 The Spacedock above Earth in the the Star Trek universe, which fucntions as an orbital spaceport. Image copyright Paramount.
This is an orbital facility that performs all the functions of a surface-based spaceport. There is some superficial resemblance between orbital spaceports and deep-space support bases, but the main difference is that a deep-space base is designed to be primarily self-sufficient while an orbital spaceport is dependent on the world it orbits.
Orbital spaceports can become a reality only after launch costs fall to sufficient levels to allow an extensive infrastructure to be put in place in space. While Orbital Vector predicts launch costs may begin to fall substantially starting at Tech Level 13, sufficiently extensive facilities in space to allow a full-service orbital spaceport would likely not exist until one Tech Level later.
Orbital spaceports would likely consist of one or more centralized space stations, maybe even a full-on space colony such as a Bernal Sphere or Stanford Torus, in order to house personnel and facilitate the processing of passengers and cargo. Spaceship berthing, maintenance, fueling, and so on will most likely be done outside of the station in full vacuum in order to maximize space within the station and efficiency of the procedures. The spaceport may have fully pressurized berths for spacecraft, but would likely use them only for very extensive repairs or major overhauls.
The advantages of an orbital spaceport are numerous. Some spaceships (such as the starship Enterprise from the Star Trek universe) are simply not designed to land on a planet or even enter an atmosphere, and must be serviced while in space. Not having to land and launch from deep in a planet’s gravity well or atmosphere may also reduce turnaround time for spacecraft if time may be critical. An orbital port could also take advantage of cheap but plentiful solar power. Fuel and other consumables may also be extracted and transported cheaper from in-space sources such as the Moon instead of lifting them directly from Earth.
But perhaps the best reason for an orbital spaceport is to provide an additional buffer against quarantine dangers, such as from off-world viruses or invasive species. If a dangerous lifeform is detected on an incoming ship, it has a much less chance of inadvertently escaping into the world’s biosphere from an orbital facility than from a ground-based facility. Orbital spaceports therefore might have more extensive quarantine facilities than their ground-based counterparts, as their main purpose would be to deal with this threat.
In science fiction settings that have to deal with a great deal of interworld traffic, a planet may have both orbital and ground spaceports, perhaps working in tandem. For example, in the Traveller RPG setting, most high-tech worlds funneled their space traffic through both an orbital spaceport and a ground-based spaceport. The orbital spaceport, or “up port”, inspects all incoming spaceships and cargo, specifically looking for dangerous microbes, invasive lifeforms, and contraband. While some exchange of passengers and cargo is handled in the orbital facility, the bulk of that is left for the ground-based spaceport, or ‘downport’ after the ship passes inspection in space.
Tech Level: 16
Starports are basically spaceports that can accommodate and service starships as well as normal spaceships. The exact nature of a starport would depend on the nature of interstellar travel technology available, but otherwise would closely resemble the spaceports that preceded them. In fact, many already-existing spaceports would likely be converted or expanded into full-blown starports as needed.