Space Perspective prepares to introduce new recovery ship as providers compete for land at Port Canaveral

by Gav Cornwell

First announced in November 2022, Florida-based Space Perspective has purchased an 89-meter-long (292 feet) vessel named Voyager for conversion into what it describes as the first marine spaceport for human spaceflight. The space tourism company was founded in 2019, selling yet-to-happen high-altitude balloon flights.

Named in honor of the Voyager 1 space probe, the vessel was acquired to allow the company to launch and recover its spacecraft capsule Neptune from anywhere in the world, starting with pre-approved locations near Florida. The company completed its first test flight in June 2021, launching from land near Kennedy Space Center. The capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico roughly seven hours later. On that occasion, the capsule was recovered from the water using a chartered commercial vessel, GO America.

Building on that first recovery, Voyager will have the capability to both launch and recover the spacecraft in an integrated, flexible solution that can also relocate to avoid bad weather — a problem that often plagues traditional rocket launches and marine capsule recovery operations. Space Perspective has previously stated it expects Voyager to be the first in a fleet of marine spaceports globally.

Space Perspective’s new spaceport vessel started life under the name C-Challenger. Owned and operated by large marine firm Edison Chouest, this company completed a similar sale of two vessels to SpaceX in 2021, which later became support vessels, Bob and Doug.

Voyager is being converted at a Louisiana shipyard and will run on biofuel, a more environmentally friendly option than is traditionally found on commercial vessels of these types. The balloon will launch from Voyager to a height of 32 km, then glide for several hours, before dropping the capsule, which will splash down in the ocean and be recovered by the ship. Operational support of the ship will be provided by marine firm Guice Offshore, a company that has worked with other commercial space providers including Blue Origin and SpaceX, the latter for nearly a decade.

For recovery, Voyager will be retro-fitted with an a-frame lifting system to lift the capsule from the ocean, supported by fast boats. This system is very similar to the Dragon capsule recovery system developed by SpaceX and implemented on its recovery vessels Megan and Shannon.

Voyager being prepared for renovations. (Credit: Space Perspective)

These similarities should come as little surprise as Space Perspective’s launch and recovery system development is being led by Ryan Nascimento, former responsible engineer for Dragon recovery development at SpaceX, where he oversaw the construction of the two SpaceX vessels.

Voyager was slated to enter operation at the start of 2023 when first announced, but in more recent updates this seems to have slipped to later in 2023, ahead of further Spaceship Neptune test flights.

Voyager will be based at Port Canaveral, home to a large number of SpaceX vessels and a frequent destination of ULA’s Rocketship and other miscellaneous space-related operations. Port Canaveral is located immediately south of Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and has been seeing increasing demand from the commercial space industry for the use of its facilities.

Blue Origin, Relativity Space, and Stoke Space all recently wrote to the port in a joint letter seeking to ensure that they would be given the opportunity to lease space when it became available, implying that as local employers they should be given priority to this land ahead of foreign cargo and cruise ships. Port Canaveral has a very busy cruise and cargo operation, making space limited and valuable.

SpaceX, who did not sign the letter, has grown to maintain seven vessels based at Port Canaveral but was praised by Port Canaveral leadership for being flexible about moving its vessels around to meet the needs of others. SpaceX’s increasing launch rate also means that many of its ships are frequently offshore and not taking up valuable space in the Port. When SpaceX docks its entire fleet of ships, the company occupies around 700 m of valuable space which is a significant portion of the available space.

Blue Origin is known to have secured land at Port Canaveral to install a crane for New Glenn processing. It’s presumed that the company is also interested in dock space for its future recovery fleet, with similar interest from the other companies that signed the letter. Relativity Space, which launches from Cape Canaveral, recently announced plans to land and recover its future Terran R rocket downrange on a drone ship.

Port Canaveral’s concern stems from the fact that it is keen to avoid idle ships spending the majority of their time sitting around in the Port, taking up valuable commercial dock space that could be used for other revenue-generating purposes. Port Canaveral suggested in a recent public meeting that these space companies should be considering other areas of land around Cape Canaveral to park ships while idle. Space Florida, a development agency of the state, is investigating potential solutions.

(Lead image: An artist’s rendering of Voyager after renovation. Credit: Space Perspective)

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