Science fiction writers of the mid-20th century depicted the spaceports of the future as a kind of interplanetary airport, with waiting rooms, an airfield, and a schedule board listing regular flights to the Moon, Mars, satellites of the Outer Planets, and remote stations somewhere in the Asteroid Belt. At the same time, the appearance of such spaceports was announced in the mid-1980s, at the very least, at the beginning of the 2000s. Unfortunately, we still don’t have anything like that, to be more precise, one spaceport, Spaceport America, still exists, but no one flies anywhere from there, except really low. However, the boom in commercial space exploration, orbital tourism, and the desire of many countries to join the club of space nations has sparked interest in the deconservation of several old spaceports and the construction of new spaceports. And who knows, maybe in 10-15 years the same spaceports that were drawn by the overly optimistic imagination of science fiction writers of the 1950s and 60s will become a reality. There are already dozens of places on Earth from where rockets launch artificial satellites into space, and every year their number will only grow. In honor of the 79th anniversary of the launch of the first artificial object into space (no, it was not the Soviet Sputnik-1 and it did not happen in the USSR at all), we decided to talk about the spaceports of planet Earth. Not about all of them, there are really many of them, only about the most famous and interesting ones.
The very first
Peenemünde Army Research Center, Germany
The first space launch June 20, 1944.
Total launches at least 2 out of more than 3000 rockets reached the limits of space
The Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde, the Peenemünde Army Research Institute, was founded in 1937 to test rocket weapons developed under the direction of Robert Lasser and Wernher von Braun. It was here, on June 20, 1944, during the MW 18014 test launch, which was carried out to test the performance of engines and equipment in a vacuum, that the Aggregat 4 rocket, better known as the Vergeltungswaffe 2 (“Weapon of Retaliation 2”) or V-2, reached a height of 176 km, becoming the first man-made object to enter space. It is interesting that the German rocket engineers did not attach much importance to this event, with more joy they celebrated the launch in October 1942, when the V-2 first reached the thermosphere (80 km). No attention was paid to the intersection of the Kármán line, now recognized as the border of outer space, perhaps because it was more than 10 years before this term appeared.
On June 20, 1944, two more launches were made, and a few days later, during the next vertical launch of the same test series, the record of MW 18014 was broken, but for some reason, the usually meticulous German scientists kept records very carelessly so that neither the exact date nor the exact height of the new record are known.
And the V-2 rockets captured by the Allies and the USSR formed the basis of both the American and Soviet ballistic missile development programs, and later the space exploration program. The famous Gagarin R-7 Semyorka, as well as the American Redstone, are the heirs of weapons created by the hands of Nazi concentration camp prisoners, which killed about 9,000 people during barbaric shelling of civilian objects in Great Britain, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and even in Germany itself.
The first “American” rocket, which was the V-2 captured in Peenemünde, reached space (altitude 112 km) on May 10, 1946, during a launch from the White Sands Missile Range. By the way, the Americans also received the first photograph of the Earth from space. The black-and-white photo was taken at an altitude of 105 km by a DeVry 35mm film camera launched during V-2 testing on October 24, 1946.
On February 20, 1947, the first living creatures – fruit flies – entered space. A V-2 rocket launched from White Sands lifted the fly to an altitude of 109 km, and then a parachute capsule returned them to Earth. On June 14, 1949, the first primate went into space: a rhesus macaque nicknamed Albert II reached a height of 134 km, but died on landing due to the failure of the parachute system.
Returning to Peenemünde, where it all began. The V-2 test sites themselves were blown up by the Allied forces, but the Historical Technical Museum / Historisch-Technisches Museum Peenemünde in the building of the former power plant of the test site was later opened. It is a must-see for anyone interested in military and space history.
The most famous
Tyuratam / Baikonur, USSR / Kazakhstan / Russia
The first space launch August 21, 1957.
Total launches more than 1000
The first Soviet rocket crossed the Kármán line, which did not exist at the time, on October 11, 1948. It was a V-2 replica called R-1 created by Ukrainian Serhii Korolev. The launch was carried out from the Kapustin Yar rocket launch complex. By the way, the R-1 launch vehicle was later built at “plant No. 586”, the future Pivdenmash in Dnipro.
The first Soviet dogs-astronauts were also launched into space from the Kapustin Yar. The first successful launch (it is not known how many more launches the USSR kept silent about) took place on July 22, 1951. The R-1V rocket (all the same modified R-1/V-2) lifted the dogs Dezik and Tsygan into space, and after 20 minutes the animals returned to Earth.
However, Kapustin Yar did not gain much popularity. First due to secrecy, then due to rare launches, and Kazakhstan’s Tyuratam/Baikonur after the events of 1957 drew all attention to itself.
Work on the site, from which Ukrainians Serhii Korolev and Valentin Hlushko will launch the first artificial satellite of the Earth into space, and then the first astronaut began on January 12, 1955. The first successful space launch from Baikonur was carried out on August 21, 1957, when an intercontinental ballistic missile P-7 reached an apogee of 1,350 km during the tests. Korolev’s “Semyorka” became the progenitor of a whole family of Soviet/Russian space rockets still in use, including the modern “Soyuz-2.1a”.
Baikonur is located near the village of Tyuratam, in the Kyzylorda region of Kazakhstan. Russia is leasing the complex from the Republic of Kazakhstan until 2050. The distance from the actual village of Baikonur (Karaganda Region, Kazakhstan) to the spaceport is 286 km as the crow flies. The confusion in the names is related to the usual secrecy for the USSR – in the Soviet press, the village of Baikonur was indicated as Gagarin’s starting point.
During the times of the USSR, Baikonur was one of the largest (18 launch sites, most of which have not been used for a long time) and busiest spaceports on the planet (over 1,000 launches), and after the end of the Space Shuttle program, it was the only one from which it was possible to deliver cosmonauts and astronauts to the International Space Station. The first artificial Earth satellite (October 4, 1957), the first cosmonaut of the planet Yuri Gagarin (April 12, 1961), all Soviet and Russian orbital missions, “Moon rovers” and interplanetary space stations, components of orbital stations and one-time Soviet space Buran shuttle (November 15, 1988) took off from Baikonur.
With Baikonur, or rather with the fall of the stages of rockets with toxic fuel, the death of birds and animals in Kazakhstan, as well as an increased number of deaths from cancer and heart attacks among the local population, are associated.
On March 7, 2023, the government of Kazakhstan took control of the Bayterek launch complex, one of the launch sites of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. One of the reasons for the arrest is Russia’s failure to pay a debt to the government of Kazakhstan in the amount of $29.7 million.
The number of space launches carried out by Russia drops rapidly, so the fate of the Russian Baikonur is in great doubt. And whether Kazakhstan will be able to independently operate such a large and long-obsolete spaceport in terms of equipment and technologies, and in general, whether Kazakhstan needs it – another serious question.
The most cinematic
Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA
First space launch September 20, 1956
Total starts more than 590
We know perfectly well that it is not correct to say “Cape Canaveral” because near the famous cape that has so often appeared on TV and movie screens, two spaceports are located fence to fence – the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center, managed by NASA. Roughly speaking, military and civilian spaceports.
The first to be built was, of course, the military spaceport, or rather, the Joint Long Range Proving Ground, which appeared here in June 1949. The first rocket to reach space from this site was the Redstone Jupiter C RS-27, launched On September 20, 1956, it rose to a height of 1,097 km. In 1958, NASA was created, but rockets continued to be launched by Air Force personnel (the Space Command was only created in December 2019), which was later joined by the same Wernher von Braun. The first American artificial Earth satellite Explorer-I (February 1, 1958), the first American astronaut Alan Shepard (suborbital flight May 5, 1961) “went into space” from Cape Canaveral. Gemini and Apollo 7, automatic interplanetary stations Voyager and Pioneer, the first Mars rover Sojourner, etc. took off from here.
The Kennedy Space Center was created later, on July 1, 1962, and it is actually located across the fence (the areas of the complexes meet) on the former Merritt Island (NASA built a road that turned it into a peninsula). Saturn rockets that took astronauts to the Moon, Space Shuttle missions, and now SpaceX’s Falcon 9, including Crew Dragon manned ships, took off from the Kennedy Center’s launch pads.
Unlike the USSR with its pathological secrecy, in the USA the location of the country’s main spaceports was not hidden, moreover, both the US Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center became the “stars” of TV and movie screens from the first days. Cape Canaveral first appeared on television in the series Men Into Space (1959–1960), then in Star Trek: The Original Series (episode Assignment: Earth (1968)), in Bond’s Moonraker (1979), Contact (1997), Armageddon (1998) and others. In fact, the number of movies and TV shows is in the hundreds. Well, NASA has always understood the importance of PR and continues to promote space exploration with all its might.
Plesetsk, USSR / Russia
First space launch March 17, 1966
Total starts more than 1500
You may be surprised, but the “champion” in terms of launches is the Soviet/Russian Plesetsk spaceport located in the Arkhangelsk region (“The only spaceport in Europe” – as the Russians advertise it). From 1966 to 2021, more than 1,500 space launch vehicles were launched from the Arkhangelsk taiga (there were thousands more test launches of ballistic war missiles), which launched more than 2,000 devices, mostly for military purposes, into orbit. In 1970-1980, Plesetsk accounted for up to 40% of world space launches.
Plesetsk’s polar location (62 degrees N) allows the launching of spacecraft into the so-called Molniya orbit, named after the series of military and communications satellites of the same name. A feature of this high elliptical orbit is the prolonged stay of the device near the apogee at an altitude of about 40,000 km, which allows the construction of communication networks and surveillance networks, including military ones, over the northern hemisphere of the Earth.
Most of the Cosmos series devices, usually for military purposes, were launched from Plesetsk using Soyuz, Rokot, and Tsyklon-3 rockets (Pivdenne Design Bureau, Dnipro). The latest Angara also launches from here, usually unsuccessfully.
The most efficient
Kourou, Guiana, France
First space launch March 10, 1970
Total launches 318
Located in the French overseas department of Guiana in South America, the Guiana Space Center is 500 km north of the equator, making it the world’s most energy-efficient spaceport. When launched from the equator, the rocket is helped by the rotation of the Earth, which allows you to save up to 10% of fuel or deliver a larger mass into orbit. In addition, the equatorial launch allows satellites to be launched into orbit with any inclination, which is also important.
The first successful launch from Kourou took place on March 10, 1970, before which France used the Hammaguir spaceport in Algeria. After Algeria gained independence in 1962, the test site was leased for several more years. Kourou is jointly operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the French National Center for Space Research (CNES). It is where Vega light launch vehicles, Russian Soyuz and Ariane family rockets, including the heavy Ariane 5, the same one that launched James Webb Space Telescope and an ambitious mission to Jupiter JUICE. The new Ariane 6 should take off from here for the first time in the IV quarter of 2023.
The Kourou Spaceport has the reputation of being the spaceport with the highest percentage of successful launches.
The most resort-like
The first space launch June 25, 2016.
Total launches 14
In China, which took over second place from Russia in space rank reports and is now desperately catching up with the US, there are four spaceports at once, including Jiuquan in Inner Mongolia from which manned ships take off. The Wenchang Spaceport is the southernmost and is likely to become the main launch site for China’s heavy rockets.
The Chinese launch pad Wenchang (this is how the official name of the spaceport is translated) is located on the island of Hainan, the Chinese equivalent of our Crimea. In 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 65 million tourists visited the resort island, in 2019 there were even more – 90 million! The crowded beaches you saw in the movie The Meg are the resort of Sanya on Hainan. And now they also have a spaceport.
The advantages of Wenchang are its location close to the equator (see Kourou), the possibility of delivering rocket components by water, and bringing down launch vehicles. The spaceport was built specifically for the Long March 5 heavy rockets, which delivered components of the Chinese space station into orbit Tiangong.
Spaceport America, New Mexico, USA
The first space launch April 28, 2007.
Total launches more than 10 suborbital
Spaceport America is the first spaceport exactly in the sense that science fiction writers put into this word. With a real passenger terminal with large windows, a waiting room, a check-in desk, and hangars for ships. Richard Branson planned to launch space tourists from here and wanted everything to look fancy. While Virgin Galactic’s tourist suborbital flights were delayed, the terminal building was used for conferences and presentations.
However, the America spaceport is already serving its intended purpose. On April 28, 2007, the SpaceLoft XL suborbital launch vehicle launched from its territory. As a payload, the ashes of astronaut Gordon Cooper (the youngest of the first US astronauts) and actor James Doohan (Scotty from the original Star Trek). The rocket reached an altitude of 117 km, and the ash burned up as it entered the dense layers of the atmosphere, so it was essentially the first space funeral.
In addition to UP Aerospace, which carries out suborbital launches of SpaceLoft XL, the STIG-A rocket of the famous game developer John Carmack took off from America. SpaceX, Google, SpinLaunch, Exos Aerospace, AeroVironment/HAPSMobile, and other companies used the spaceport as a test site.
On May 25, 2023, the Virgin Galactic ship VSS Unity reached space again (in the American interpretation, it slightly missed the Kármán line, rising to a height of only 87.2 km), and in general, Virgin Galactic is aggressive and is going to resume commercial suborbital flights and make up to 400 “flights” per year. So the spaceport will still be a spaceport.
The most beautiful
Māhia, New Zealand
The first space launch May 25, 2017.
Total launches 35
As a space geek, I find all launch sites incredibly beautiful, but if I had to choose just one, I would have no hesitation in naming Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 located at Cape Māhia in New Zealand. Daytime launches from a cape pointed into the boundless ocean, like the nose of a ship or a rocket, look really impressive.
Stylish black Electron Rocket Lab carbon rockets launch from Māhia, which Peter Beck’s company literally bakes like hotcakes. And they reuse them. Although it is still far from complete reusability. In addition, a reusable medium rocket Neutron, whose first launch is scheduled for 2024, will launch not from Māhia, but from the MARS launch complex (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport), a commercial spaceport that occupies the southern portion of the NASA Test Center on Wallops Island, Virginia.
The most ambitious
SpaceX Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas, USA
The first space launch is not yet
Total launches 1
Construction of the SpaceX spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas, now known as SpaceX Starbase, began in 2014. Initially, it was thought that the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles would launch from this site, but in 2018, plans changed and Starbase became the site of testing and future launches of the Super Heavy launch vehicle and the SpaceX Starship heavy reusable spacecraft.
First SpaceX Starship orbital launch attempt in April 2023 ended with an explosion and revealed some shortcomings of the launch complex. But Elon Musk, as always, is very confident and hopes that the next launch, which is apparently planned for August 2023, will be more successful. As for ambition, Starship Cargo and Starship Crew are scheduled to launch as early as 2029, although the ship has never yet crossed the Kármán line.
Well, then Starbase should turn into the world’s main spaceport, from which every 72 hours huge ships are sent to Earth orbit, to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Everything as promised by science fiction 70 years ago. New Vasyuki on the Mexican border!
The most mobile
Sea Launch, Ukraine / USA / Norway / Russia
The first space launch March 27, 1999.
Total launches 36
The idea of a floating equatorial spaceport was great. Launching from the most advantageous point, at any angle, from neutral waters. In addition, the involvement of Ukrainian and Russian specialists would allow the US to reduce the outflow of trained rocket engineers to Iran and North Korea, which was appealing to the State Department. This is how Sea Launch appeared – a joint aerospace enterprise of the USA (40% of shares), Russia (25%), Norway (20%), and Ukraine (15%). The USA provided system integration, high-precision equipment (connecting two ships and transferring the rocket from the transporter/command ship to the launch pad – very delicate operations), payload placement, fairings. Norway built its own Ocean Odyssey launch platform and Sea Launch Commander command ship. Ukraine, the Dnipro-based Pivdenmash, was preparing Zenit-3SL rockets, a special version of Zenit to be launched from Sea Launch. Russia provided the third stage – the so-called Block D.
The launches were carried out from the waters of the Pacific Ocean from a point with beautiful coordinates of 0°N 154°W, near Christmas Island. Since March 27, 1999, 36 rockets have taken off from Sea Launch, although several launches ended in accidents that resulted in significant damage to the launch platform. In any case, Sea Launch never reached the number of launches required for self-sufficiency (3-4 successful launches per year in the pre-SpaceX era), and the project went bankrupt in 2009.
In 2010, Ukraine left the consortium, and 95% of the shares of Sea Launch went to Russia. Six more launches were made, only after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, access to Zenit missiles became impossible for Russia, and this launch complex is simply not adapted for another rocket.
In 2016, Sea Launch became the property of the Russian company S7 Group, a subsidiary of S7 Airlines. But it was not possible to agree on the supply of components for Zenit with Ukraine. In 2019, the Ocean Odyssey and Sea Launch Commander ships, with fully dismantled American and Ukrainian equipment critical for the launch, were handed over to Russia. Two completely unnecessary and unworkable components of the Sea Launch, which, most likely, are impossible to reequip, are standing near the mooring wall in the port of Slovianka, located 50 km from Vladivostok. Where, most likely, they will die.
The idea of a sea launch still appeals to space engineers. And although SpaceX has already played with floating launch platforms Phobos and Deimos based on old drilling rigs, The Spaceport Company took over the baton, with recent several launches of weather rockets from the self-lifting ship of EBI Liftboats LLC from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Even earlier, China toyed with a sea launch. On June 5, 2019, the Long March 11 launch vehicle successfully launched from a floating platform in the Yellow Sea, putting seven satellites into orbit. The relaunch was carried out on September 15, 2020.
The most Ukrainian
Canso, Nova Scotia, Canada
The first space launch is planned for 2025
All launches no launches yet
After withdrawing from the Sea Launch project, Ukraine does not have its own spaceport, just as Canada does not have one. Although Canada had as many as four test sites, from one of which, the Churchill Rocket Research Range on the shores of Hudson Bay, more than 3,500 (!) suborbital launches were carried out. Moreover, purchased by a civilian company, from 1994 to 1998 the test site had the proud name of SpacePort Canada. Unfortunately, the company went bankrupt after only one suborbital launch.
However, soon Canada should have its own spaceport. Back in 2017, the company Maritime Launch Services announced the construction of a launch site and an assembly shop near the town of Canso in Nova Scotia. Starting in 2022, the company planned to launch eight Tsyklon-4M rockets produced by Pivdenne Design Bureau every year. Ukraine was also going to launch 8 satellites by 2025 The start of a full-scale war destroyed these plans.
The choice of Pivdenne/Pivdenmash as an MLS partner was not accidental. Tsyklon-4M is a development of the ideas of the Zenit and Tsyklon launch vehicles (based on the design of the infamous R-36M Satan nuclear ballistic missile), which have proven their reliability and success (more than 250 launches). In addition, one of the vice presidents of the Canadian Maritime Launch Services, which is engaged in financing the project, is the Ukrainian cosmonaut Yaroslav Pustovyi, Leonid Kadeniuk’s backup, who has been living in Canada since 2007 and even held the position of president of the Canadian Space Commerce Association for some time.
Work in Canso began with great delay. It wasn’t until March 24, 2023, that the first concrete for the Phase I pad was poured, according to Maritime Launch Services COO Harvey Doan.
At the beginning of 2022, Pivdenne Design Bureau announced the beginning of the practical implementation of the project to create a mid-range launch vehicle Tsyklon-4M. Since the beginning of the full-scale war, there has been no additional information about this project.
However, Maritime Launch Services is still looking for customers and signing contracts for launches, so let’s hope after the victory, this Canadian-Ukrainian project will be fully operational. Cheers to the engineers and we believe in the Armed Forces of Ukraine!
Number of spaceports by country
USA – 9
China – 4
Russia – 4
Iran – 2
Japan – 2
Israel – 1
India – 1
North Korea – 1
South Korea – 1
New Zealand – 1
France – 1
Australia – 1 (not used since 1971)
Italy – 1 (not used since 1988)
Norway, Pakistan, Indonesia, Canada, Brazil, Sweden, Spain, and other countries have plans to modify proving grounds and build full-fledged spaceports on their basis.
Top 10 spaceports in the world by launches
1. Plesetsk (USSR, Russia) – more than 1,500
2. Baikonur (USSR, Kazakhstan/Russia) – more than 1,000
3. Vandenberg (California, USA) Space Force Base – more than 700
4. Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (Florida, USA) – more than 400
5. Kourou (Guiana, France) – 318
6. Kennedy Space Center (Florida, USA) – 187
7. Xichang (China) – 183
8. Jiuquan (China) – 121
9. Satish Dhawan Space Center (India) – 88
10. Kapustin Yar (USSR, Russia) – 85
The original of this article in Russian was posted in 2021 on the ITC.ua website. This is supplemented with new data and the author’s corrected translation.