What exactly is a spaceport?

The starting point for any discussion about spaceports is a definition, so that we know what we’re talking about. In its most general sense, a spaceport is just a site for launching spacecraft. In addition to launches, the site would typically test, store, and perform maintenance on spacecraft, and may also have related facilities and operations for storing and/or processing liquid rocket fuel. A spaceport may even have on-site tenants that rent space as part of their ongoing launch operations.

kennedy space center, including large white and grey buliding on the left, and launch tower with vertical rocket on the right
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft.

Spaceports are a relatively recent concept, but the idea – and the word itself – is just an extension of other types of transportation hubs that have existed for hundreds or even thousands of years. Airports are similarly sites for airplanes taking off and landing; seaports are places where ships launch and return (and where ships may be built, repaired, stored, maintained, and so on). The analogy for space travel is clear.

So what kind of spacecraft qualify? There are a few different types or categories for spaceports based on the method of launch, as well as what is being launched. The majority of spaceports support a vertical rocket launch, but there are a few – which appear to be exclusively in the United States – that allow for a horizontal launch, e.g., a vehicle that takes off on a runway like an airplane but that is capable of reaching space.

Along similar lines, spacecraft can have a human crew (manned) or no crew (unmanned). They are also designed for different purposes and can reach different heights: sub-orbital or orbital, or beyond.

As of 2022, the total number of spaceports worldwide is just 35. Of these, 15 are in the US, from locations as far-flung as Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island in Alaska. It’s worth noting the other countries that have at least one spaceport, given that it’s somewhat rare: Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, Japan, India, Brazil, New Zealand, French Guiana, Kenya, Norway, and South Korea.

So can anyone just build their own spaceport?

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