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Spaceport America illustration
Spaceport America remains just a set of illustrations like this one, but spaceport proponents and local officials continue to push ahead with lining up the funding and paperwork needed to make the spaceport a reality. (credit: New Mexico Spaceport Authority)

Spaceports still taxiing towards takeoff

The last few weeks have seen a number of events associated with the new crop of commercial spaceports that are trying to get a piece of the emerging “NewSpace” industry of low-cost commercial suborbital and orbital vehicles. New Mexico’s spaceport authority, which oversees the ambitiously-named Spaceport America, turned to the aviation industry for its new executive director. However, state officials announced last week that the one county that passed a tax increase to help fund the project can delay its introduction since other counties have yet to act on the measure, preventing any money that would be collected to be spent. At Mojave Air and Space Port in California, best known as the site of the suborbital spaceflights of SpaceShipOne in 2004, airport officials claimed earlier this month that the FAA was threatening to take away their spaceport license because of safety concerns, although there were conflicting reports about just how serious the threat was.

Like many of the vehicle companies, some spaceports have had to stretch out their timelines, but are making slow and steady progress—enough, it seems, to encourage others not to be left behind.

These problems, however, along with the slow progress on vehicles that plan to operate from such facilities, have not deterred others from trying to develop spaceports of their own. Last month officials with the airport authority in Jacksonville, Florida, held a public hearing about plans to apply for a spaceport license for Cecil Field, a former naval air station west of the city. An environmental assessment is underway with plans to submit its license application next year. Just last week local media in Corpus Christi, Texas, reported that a suborbital vehicle developer, Space Access LLC, had expressed an interest in operating out of the city. Also last week, Brian Feeney, who led the da Vinci Project team that competed for the Ansari X Prize, said he was scouting locations in Ontario, including the Niagara region, for a potential manufacturing facility and spaceport.

How should one make sense of all these varying, if not conflicting, developments? It’s clear that many people still see great potential in the emerging NewSpace industry, despite the difficulties some companies have experienced in the last few years. Indeed, like many of the vehicle companies, some spaceports have had to stretch out their timelines, but are making slow and steady progress—enough, it seems, to encourage others not to be left behind.

Spaceport America’s potential

Perhaps the highest profile of all the new spaceports is Spaceport America in New Mexico. That profile can be linked to an anchor tenant—Virgin Galactic—that is one of the leading companies in the NewSpace field and also one not to shy away from any publicity. The spaceport has also benefited from the support of the state’s governor, Bill Richardson (also a Democratic candidate for President), who helped push through a large portion of the funding needed to build the spaceport through the state legislature in early 2006. While some other proposed new spaceports have sought to convert existing airports or former military bases, Spaceport America will be a totally new, purpose-built commercial spaceport, rising from the southern New Mexico desert like a wildflower blooming after a spring rain.

While the site of Spaceport America has hosted a pair of suborbital rocket launches by UP Aerospace in 2006 and 2007, construction of the spaceport’s main facilities—including a futuristic passenger terminal, hangars, and runway—has yet to begin. Wayne Savage, a manger with DMJM Aviation, the firm overseeing development of the spaceport, said at the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight (ISPS) in October in Las Cruces, New Mexico, that work was underway on the environmental assessment for the spaceport, which they hope to be approved by next September. That would be the last major milestone before the spaceport gets its FAA license, after which construction would begin. That would allow the spaceport to be complete and operations to begin in April of 2010.

Getting to that point has not been easy, even if Branson and Richardson made it look like a fait accompli to the casual observer. The biggest challenge for the spaceport has been “bring together, coalescing, the political will to transcend the numerous challenges in a state without a lot of high-tech experts” but a rich agricultural heritage said Kelly O’Donnell, the acting executive director of the spaceport authority, at the ISPS. “There’s an uneasy partnership between our more agricultural, grassroots base and this emerging industry, which is so very high-tech.”

Much of that will has been devoted to getting the estimated $200 million needed to build the spaceport. The state government will provide about $140 million, with the remainder to come from a local “gross receipts tax” (effectively a sales tax) in the three southern New Mexico counties that stand to benefit the most economically from the spaceport: Doña Ana, which includes Las Cruces; Otero, which includes Alamogordo; and Sierra, which includes the town of Truth or Consequences. “There has been some concern amongst these counties that no single local government carries too much of the burden of the spaceport,” O’Donnell said.

“This is the largest economic benefit for New Mexico in the last 20 years,” said Rick Holdridge, a county commissioner.

Getting that tax passed in the three counties, though, has been a problem. In April Doña Ana County voters narrowly approved the tax, after spaceport supporters made a full-court press in the final days before the special election. Bill Mattiace, mayor of Las Cruces, noted at the ISPS that the city, compared to the rest of the county, voters overwhelmingly approved the tax, in part because of the longstanding local ties to White Sands and inherent interest in rocketry. “There was a demographic here that could believe again in the future, in science,” he said. Neither Otero nor Sierra, though, have held similar referenda, although Lori Montgomery, mayor of Truth or Consequences, said at the ISPS that Sierra County would likely hold a vote on the tax in March or April of next year, after educating the public about the tax and what it would be used for. (Since then a date has been selected for the election: April 8.)

Those delays, though, put Doña Ana in a bind: the tax was set to go into effect on January 1, 2008, but a provision of the legislation that allowed the counties to enact such taxes also required the formation of a “spaceport tax district” to actually spend the money that is collected, with a portion of the money set aside for educational projects. The district, though, could not be created until at least one more county voted on the tax. At the request of some Doña Ana officials, the New Mexico attorney general ruled last week that the county could delay collection of the tax until after the tax district could be created.

Despite the tax difficulties, local officials remain optimistic about the spaceport and the economic development it promises to bring to that region of the state. “What we’re looking for is jobs,” said Judd Nordyke, mayor of Hatch, a small farming community near the site of the spaceport. “As mechanization moves into agriculture and fewer and few people can find jobs in agriculture, we have to find some alternatives.” That theme—of jobs and economic growth and diversification—was echoed by other officials.

“This is the largest economic benefit for New Mexico in the last 20 years,” said Rick Holdridge, a county commissioner in Luna County and chairman of the spaceport authority’s Community Advisory Committee.

Beyond Spaceport America, and beyond America

One person who doesn’t need to be sold on the economic benefits of a spaceport is Stu Witt, manager of Mojave Air and Space Port. The growth of the NewSpace industry in the last few years has attracted a number of companies to Mojave because of its existing infrastructure and its ability and willingness to accommodate a wide range of uses. “When I took over the airport five and a half years ago, we were at 40 percent occupancy,” said Witt at the SpaceVision 2007 conference last month at MIT. “Today we’re at 100 percent. I don’t have anything to rent.”

Witt and others have been working on a number of issues, including how to integrate suborbital spaceflight into the national airspace system. “If you think you are going to move aside this huge industry called the airlines to accommodate your concept, you need to rethink that right now,” he warned. They have crafted at least one flight path for suborbital vehicles that allow them to integrate so smoothly into the airspace system that they can file the same flight plan as a conventional aircraft flight.

Mojave has also had to learn recently about how to deal with accidents, after a propellant flow test by Scaled Composites at a remote corner of the airfield resulted in an explosion that killed three people and injured three others. “We are learning from our setbacks,” Witt said, although he did not go into details about the ongoing accident investigation during his MIT speech.

Existing, more conventional spaceports have struggled to be attractive to NewSpace companies, who often find a lower cost of doing business, and less bureaucracy, at emerging spaceports than at existing ones, which are often co-located with government facilities. Steve Kohler, president of Space Florida, described at the ISPS the challenges of getting a deal in place to allow SpaceX to use SLC-40, a former Titan launch pad a Cape Canaveral, for the Falcon 9 rocket “The challenge was, and it was a difficult challenge, was to persuade the U.S. Air Force to grant a license for access,” he said.

Billie Reed, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, is looking to NewSpace fields like space tourism and commercial ISS resupply as areas of growth for MARS, but is hindered by a small budget. “If I could only tax, then I’d have it made,” he quipped at the ISPS. He hopes that a liability indemnification bill passed by the state earlier this year, as well as a proposed “zero-gravity, zero-tax” bill to be considered by the legislature next year, will help attract businesses to his spaceport.

“If we are successful,” said Mojave’s Witt, “hopefully all of these will be successful.”

Interest in new commercial spaceports is not confined to the US. One of the farthest-along plans is Spaceport Sweden, a proposal to conduct suborbital space tourism flights from Kiruna, site of an existing sounding rocket range. Olle Norberg, chairman of Spaceport Sweden, said a consortium of four organizations, ranging from the Swedish Space Corporation to the Icehotel (a seasonal hotel made, as the name suggests, out of ice) is in the midst of a feasibility study about spaceport operations there, set to be completed by the end of 2008; that study stemmed from an agreement with Virgin Galactic, which has expressed an interest in using the site as a European base of operations, starting as early as 2011 or 2012.

While much of the needed infrastructure for such flights, including a 2.5-kilometer-long runway, already exists, Norberg said there are a number of legal and regulatory issues that would have to be addressed. “The regulatory situation in Europe… is competely different from the situation here in the United States, where you realize that for this to work well, you must coordinate the space aspect and the aviation aspect,” he said. Of biggest concern, he said, is the lack of coordination among national aviation agencies, the European Aviation Safety Agency, and national space agencies in Europe on relevant issues. Also undecided: what sort of value added tax (VAT) would be applied by Sweden’s tax agency to space tourism activities that take place there.

Despite all the emerging spaceports, and the competition to attract businesses with uncertain futures, there is still cooperation among the various spaceports, and hope that a bright future lies ahead for all of them. “If we are successful,” said Witt, “hopefully all of these will be successful.”