Spaceports: The most active are surprisingly close to urban areas

No one may be walking on the Moon again any time soon, but a significant number of satellite launches take place each year at the most active spaceports.

By Silvia Pellegrino

The first ever spaceport, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, was established in 1955, during the Cold War between Russia and the US. Much like then, the US once again has a major revival in the space race: China, which today counts the highest number of spaceports in the world.

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy blasts off from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. (Photo by Matt Hartman/AFP via Getty Images)

Spaceports facilitate launches of rockets, satellites and human crews for both governmental and private bodies – with the balance shifting towards the latter in recent years. For instance, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic often handle launches.

Overall, there are more than 20 active spaceports around the globe, and City Monitor has collated a list of the five most active space centres in the world. 

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, US

First opened in 1949, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is the most active spaceport in the world, having overseen 38 launches in 2022 with around 15 planned in 2023. 

Throughout 2023, Cape Canaveral oversaw mostly SpaceX missions and launches, such as the launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 Transporter 6 in January, comprised of numerous microsatellites and nanosatellites for commercial and government customers. In February 2023, SpaceX also launched its Falcon 9 Starlink 6-1, with an aim of providing internet services to those who are not yet connected. 

Today, there are three functioning launch pads, 37B, 40 and 41, and their strip occupies over 10,000ft. In particular, the Complex 37B is leased to Relativity Space, Complex 40 to SpaceX and 41 to United Launch Alliance. 

Initially, this spaceport was used to test missiles, after being opened by US President Harry Truman. Its location is strategic as well, since it is closer to the equator, which means that rockets get a natural boost from the Earth’s rotation. 

And although there is obviously no easy road access, Google Maps still has it as a nifty six-hour cycle from downtown Orlando.

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Cape Canaveral was the site of some of the first US space rocket launches, such as the first US Earth satellite in 1958, the first American astronaut in 1961, the first American spacecraft to go around Mars in 1971 and the first spacecraft to leave the Solar System in 1977.

Vandenberg Air Force Base, US

Spread across 99,604 acres of land, Vandenberg Air Force Base includes 16 launch facilities and the second-largest airfield runway in the US Department of Defense, amounting to 15,000ft. 

This spaceport was born as Camp Cooke US Army garrison in 1941 and was used to house infantry, tanks and artillery to prepare for the Second World War and the Korean War. In 1957, Vandenberg was transformed into the US’s West Coast space and missile facility by the US Air Force. 

The same year designated the beginning of the space race between the US and Russia and, in 1958, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) took control of the operational capability of the missile force. In addition, the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) started research on launching vehicles, as well as continuing with the construction of the Vandenberg launch facility.

Space Launch Delta 30 is the host unit at Vandenberg and it supported some of the main Vandenberg projects, such as the Air Force Shuttle Program and the Peacekeeper ballistic missile development programme. 

Today, it is the second most active spaceport in the world, with 15 launches in 2023 and 16 recorded in 2022. And Google Maps has it as a not-too-bad three-hour drive from downtown LA.

Jiuquan Space Launch Center, China

The Jiuquan Space Launch Center in China deserves the third spot as the most active spaceport since it recorded 23 launches in 2022 and predicts nine for 2023. 

It was established in 1958 and is the country’s first site with satellite launch facilities. Since then, it has been mainly used for scientific and research purposes, launching recoverable satellite missions. 

The first-ever Chinese satellite, DFH-1, was launched into orbit from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center on board an LM-1 spacecraft in 1970. In 1992, this spaceport successfully completed its first international mission, in collaboration with the Swedish Space Corporation Freja.

In 2016, China’s first quantum communication satellite was launched from here and, in 2019, the first private orbital launch in China departed from the centre. More recently, in May 2023, the Shenzou-16 mission departed from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center. Shenzou-16 is the first flight of the second-generation Shenzhou spacecraft, which has several updates and improvements compared with Shenzou-15.

In October 2023, in addition, Shenzou-17 is expected to launch as well. It will also be part of the Shenzou programme, also known as Project 921, which has been active since 1992.

Jiuquan Space Launch Center is, quite frankly, a long way from major cities, so pack the essentials if you intend to visit.

Kennedy Space Center, US 

In 1961, Nasa purchased Merritt Island in Florida, which was used to conduct research and work on the Apollo Lunar Landing Program. Today, that land is the Kennedy Space Center, officially active since 1962.

Since the Kennedy Space Center neighbours the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, there is a strong partnership between the two and, often, they are both referred to as Cape Canaveral Spaceport. Thus, Kennedy is also a handy few hours by bike from Orlando.

Kennedy Space Center was pivotal in Nasa’s history as the departure site for the first human journey to the Moon in 1969 on board Apollo 11

Today, there are around five space launches planned throughout 2023, most of them being SpaceX rockets. In 2022, the Kennedy Space Center was more prolific, launching 16 rockets into outer space.

Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

Baikonur Cosmodrome’s history can be divided into two eras: the Soviet and the Russian era. The spaceport opened in 1955 under the name Scientific Research Test Range No 5 (NIIP-5) as a test centre for the first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). 

When choosing the location, the Soviet team had to take into account a couple of factors. For instance, the centre had to be surrounded by land, since the radio signal at the time required hundreds of uninterrupted miles to work, and it has to be far from cities and towns to preserve the population’s safety. 

Throughout its Soviet era, Baikonur Cosmodrome was behind many of the most important space missions, like the launch of the first human-made satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957, the first spacecraft to almost reach the Moon, Luna 1, in 1959, and the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.

After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the future of the spaceport was uncertain. However, Russia signed a yearly contract with the Commonwealth of Independent States to keep the research and launches going. It wasn’t until 2005 that Russia came to an agreement with Kazakhstan, ensuring the extension of the spaceport’s rental until 2050. 

Today, the financial situation of the spaceport is uncertain due to the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

In March 2023, Kazakhstan’s government took over one of the launch sites, preventing several Russian officials from entering or leaving the country due to a $30m unpaid debt to the government. As a result of these two factors, the number of launches in 2023 is reduced, only expecting five throughout the whole year.

However, it does come top on commute times, as it is just a 45-minute drive from the city of Baikonur.

[Read more: Why blimps and airships died out – and how they might be making a comeback]

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