The Defense Department in April proposed new legislative authorities that would allow it to begin charging commercial launch providers additional costs for the use of its space ports to help the U.S. Space Force finance operations to keep pace with surging commercial demand for its facilities.

The increasing commercial demand for the space ports at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., and Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., is putting “tremendous demand on our infrastructure” for things such as roads, power stations and grids, launch pad services, the manpower needed to secure a safety zone during a launch event, the related administrative burdens, and commodities like nitrogen, helium and liquid hydrogen, Col. Jim Horne, deputy director of Assured Access to Space for Space Systems Command, told Defense Daily.

One new authority sought by DoD is to be able to charge commercial launch providers indirect costs that are part of routine operations at a space port, he said during a virtual interview on May 12. These costs would include things like general security and day-to-day personnel costs.

When contracting and finance personnel are directly supporting commercial operations, their time can be charged to the launch provider but otherwise the taxpayers fund their salaries, Horne said.

“So, people are becoming a resource constraint for us from a capacity perspective,” he said. Later in the interview, he noted, “It’s not an offset to taxpayers. It actually is expanding our ability to support because we need more resources to support the increased demand.”

Horne said that commercial launch activity refers to launches of commercial payloads, like telecommunications satellites. Government activity would be the launch of a national security payload by commercially contracted launch provider.

An explanatory statement accompanying the legislative proposal, which was delivered to Congress on April 14, says that limiting reimbursements by commercial companies to the direct costs associated with supporting their operations was “was appropriate when the commercial activity was marginal and, in essence, occupied unused time between government activities.”

However, the statement says that in the last three years commercial activity has outstripped DoD launches and the outlook is for even more commercial growth. In 2022, Cape Canaveral supported 57 launches and Vandenberg 19, with commercial activity accounting for 90 percent of the launches, Horne said.

In the next two to three years, the Space Force estimates that launches between the two space ports will grow to between 100 and 200 per year driven mainly by commercial growth he said.

“Costs continue to expand as a result of this increased usage and a direct cost only reimbursement scheme limits continued expansion,” the explanatory statement says. “While the recent, rapid growth of the commercial space industry is the result of successful national policy and innovative commercial technological development, it is also clear that the DoD is subsidizing a commercial endeavor. This may have been appropriate in the nascent beginnings of a vibrant commercial market for space launch ser vices, but is now misaligned with the incredible growth in that industry and estimates for further expansion.”

If Congress provides DoD the authority to charge indirect costs for commercial space launch services the details and rates will have to be negotiated with the launch companies, Horne said, adding that “we’re going to do that in a consultative fashion.”

SpaceX has the lion’s share of the commercial space launch market but Horne said with commercial demand increasing, the Space Force will also be working with companies like United Launch Alliance—a joint venture of Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT]—and Blue Origin and others. Stoke Space, a startup space launch company developing reusable stage 1 and 2 rockets and payload fairing, in March was allocated Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The legislative proposal also seeks to essentially normalize authorities across real property, whether it was previously developed for launch operations or will be developed for these purposes, Horne said. Under Title 51 of U.S. Code, the government can rent previously developed space port property to commercial companies at fair market value, he said.

In the case of “greenfield” land that a company is developing on a space port, Title 10 authorities apply and only permit the charging of direct costs on that property, Horne said.

“So, this just sort of level sets all that so that we can treat all property the same,” he said.

Horne highlighted that there are a “number of commercial launch companies” that want to build on existing launch property or build new pads on greenfield development.

The space port leases property to the companies who finance the construction of their infrastructure to support a launch pad, Horne said. The space port is responsible for supporting the infrastructure outside any company’s “fence line,” he said.

DoD is also investing in its space ports. Horne pointed to the fiscal year 2024 budget request, which includes $100 million for infrastructure work, and $1.3 billion over the five-year Future Years Defense Program for this work.

DoD worked on the legislative proposals for several years before submitting it to Congress for potential inclusion in upcoming defense bills. Horne said he has had “numerous engagements” with the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and congressional appropriators on the the legislative proposals and the need for the new authorities.

“It’s in our national interest that U.S. and allied companies continue to proliferate commercial capability on orbit and that the U.S. maintains that world leadership,” Horne said. “And so, we need to increase our ability to support that demand on our resources and these authorities do that. I’ll tell you without these authorities we will reach a point absent any other additional resources where we hit our limit and so that’s what we’re trying to avoid. We do not want to be a throttle to U.S. and allied access to space from federal space ports. We want to continue that unfettered access to space.”