With the increasing frequency of rocket launches from Florida’s Space Coast, Port Canaveral is working hard to ensure smooth sailing for ever more cruise ships from the central Florida homeport. With both the busiest spaceport in the United States and the world’s second-busiest cruise port trying to operate in the same space, it can be a challenge to protect launch windows and keep ships sailing on time.
Busy 2023 Ahead for Space and Sea
The coming months are poised to be record-breaking, both for the spaceport and the seaport. With different companies scheduling more launches than ever, there may be close to 100 launches from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in 2023. This includes launches from SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, and NASA.
At the same time, Port Canaveral is expecting a record-breaking year with more, and larger, ships homeported, as well as day calls from visiting vessels. Ships from Disney Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, MSC Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Line are all homeported at Port Canaveral throughout the year.
In addition to homeports, day visits are planned for ships from Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, P&O Cruises, Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises, Seven Seas Cruises, and more.
At times, Port Canaveral may see as many as six cruise ships in port at once, including the world’s largest cruise ship, Wonder of the Seas, with thousands of passengers from each vessel moving back and forth for embarkation and debarkation on successive sailings.
When Space and Sea Collide
For each space launch, exclusion zones are established where no marine traffic is permitted. This is to ensure the safety of both the rocket as well as monitoring craft, and to keep ships and boats safe in case of debris or misdirection of the space vehicle. When a launch window intersects the departure time of a cruise ship, conflicts arise.
If ship captains and navigators do not properly heed the exclusion zones, it can cause a launch delay or abort, depending on the launch window and the nature of the space mission. Some launches have windows that may be several hours long, while others must launch at a very specific time – an instantaneous window – to meet their orbital goals.
This can become problematic if a cruise ship is scheduled to arrive at or depart Port Canaveral during a launch window, especially if it is a lengthy window and the launch continues to be postponed throughout the window, rather than blasting off right away. This could, potentially, cause a delay of several hours for the ship.
At the moment, however, no such delays have arisen, and the cruise port and space port are coordinating well to maintain smooth operations both on the sea and above it.
“There has been no conflict that has resulted in a cruise line sailing schedule being compromised. It just doesn’t happen,” said Port CEO Captain John Murray. “We’ve worked closely with the Coast Guard and Space Force launch operations to coordinate vessel access and safe transit of our waterways. We now have better navigation safety zones that are more suitable to today’s rocket launches with little to no impact on Port operations.”
Of course, if a cruise ship were to be delayed, this can cause a ripple effect with passengers debarking or embarking the ship, especially for guests who may have flights to catch after their cruise.
Similarly, clogged traffic in the port area can cause frustration and difficulties as the popularity of rocket launches draws even more people to Port Canaveral and adjacent regions such as Jetty Park and Cocoa Beach to see history in the making, especially for crew launches and the inaugural flights of new spacecraft.
Possible Solutions to Conflicts
There are ways that Port Canaveral might work around any possible conflicts with rocket launches, however.
For example, if a cruise ship is scheduled to arrive at or depart the port during a launch window but the launch is delayed until later in its window, the ship might be authorized to move through the jetty channel during the delay, if it can be out of the exclusion zone before the next estimated launch time. This is not current policy, but might be an option to coordinate between rockets and ships.
Local law enforcement works with port authorities to monitor traffic and direct parking to keep vehicles flowing smoothly around the port area, and many Port Canaveral hotels offer shuttle service that can help ease congestion on the roads and with parking availability. Launch traffic is often directed away from the port area for rocket viewing.
Fortunately, many rocket launches do occur outside the time frames when cruise ships must be moving through the port channel, though onboard guests can have great views all the same.
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