A couple of comments by people at Vandenberg from this SpaceNews article by Sandra Erwin have been eating at me since I read it last week.
“We are having a lull,” said Col. Michael Hough, commander of the Air Force 30th Space Wing and Western Range. “This is market driven. Demand for polar orbits is just not that high,” he said during a recent meeting with government officials attended by a SpaceNews reporter.
The “polar isn’t popular” sentiment doesn’t ring true at all. Browsing through recent launches, it seems as if every other satellite is headed to sun-synchronous orbit. For medium-to-heavy size payloads, demand is lower than for smallsats, sure.
But also, Vandenberg has only a single commercially-viable operator right now—SpaceX—so this is a little bit chicken-or-egg. Firefly is moving into SLC-2W soon, but the Vandenberg crew needs to cultivate more small launch tenants if they want to see increased activity.
The big problem is that it’s painful to get established at Vandenberg because of the environment the state has created there. Head to Cape Canaveral, and Space Florida will actively throw money your way. Head to Vandenberg, and you better watch where you step.
Hough said it would take at least two years to secure state permits for a space launch pad and although Vandenberg is a huge base, the land available to build a large pad is limited.
Later in the article, people from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) talk up SLC-6, where Delta IV Heavy launches from currently, as a potential multi-user pad, but I wish they would publish a list of available sites.
Back in April, I asked a handful of SMC members about which sites were available, and they were stumped. I followed up via email and never heard back. Someone must have a list of available sites, but I suppose the presence of double-fenced areas makes it tricky to talk about.
Until we hear otherwise, I’ll continue to bet that Relativity will take over SLC-3W.
But if the state is stubborn and wants it to take 2 years to get permits in place, maybe they’re better off taking the trek to Alaska, or in the future, Nova Scotia.