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Front Range Airport
Front Range Airport (foreground), just 10 kilometers from Denver International Airport (background), is seeking to become a licensed spaceport. (credit: Front Range Airport)

Patience, perseverance, and other lessons for spaceports

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This week marks the 51st anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight into space. Gagarin has been honored for his feat in a number of ways, with his name attached to everything from Russia’s cosmonaut training center to a district of the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol. Even Russia’s professional hockey league, the KHL, has named its championship trophy—the equivalent of the NHL’s Stanley Cup—the Gagarin Cup. And, perhaps, one day Gagarin will have his name attached to a spaceport.

Last week’s resolution is not the first time Alabama has shown an interest in a spaceport.

The Russian news service RIA Novosti reported last week that Uniparx Development, a Russian real estate development company, was proposing to build “Spaceport Gagarin” near the cosmonaut’s hometown in the Smolensk region of Russia, 200 kilometers from Moscow. The report gave few details about the proposal, beyond the fact that it would be similar to Spaceport America in New Mexico, the future home base for suborbital spaceflight provider Virgin Galactic; the project’s head suggested that the spaceport could also host Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, but had not yet approached the company.

Smolensk isn’t the only place that showed an interest in spaceports in the last week. State legislators in Alabama introduced a resolution on April 3 calling on state government agencies to develop plans for an “Alabama Spaceport Authority”. This authority would be charged with the eventual development and operation of a spaceport somewhere in the state to serve government or commercial customers. “This could be one of the biggest things to ever happen to our state, from the standpoint of job creation and being at the forefront of the space race,” said state Rep. Jim McClendon, one of the resolution’s sponsors.

Although less widely known, it’s not the first time Alabama has shown an interest in a spaceport. A decade ago state officials had nebulous plans for a spaceport to be located on the Gulf of Mexico, on the opposite side of Mobile Bay from the city of Mobile, as documented in a 2002 report published by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The effort, as the 2007 edition of the same FAA report noted, got as far as development of a first phase of a spaceport master plan, with plans to also establish a “Spaceport Alabama Authority”, but no further, and the project quietly faded away late last decade.

“I don’t know when my anchor tenant will really be flying, but I better be ready when they are,” said Spaceport America’s Anderson.

A perusal of those FAA reports show that many other proposals for commercial spaceports in the US have, like the original Spaceport Alabama concept, faded away. Back in 2002 there were plans for spaceports in places ranging from the Gulf Coast of Texas to Utah to Washington state, many of which were tied to the failed VentureStar reusable launch vehicle (RLV) project. Those concepts, and others, have been abandoned over the years, yet some states did make progress on commercial spaceports, either repurposed from existing airports or purpose-built from scratch. What lessons can those spaceports that persevered offer to this new generation of spaceport projects?

The biggest lesson might be patience. “Commercial industry is taking off, but how fast?” asked Christine Anderson, executive director of Spaceport America, during a panel on state spaceport efforts at the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington in February. “I don’t know when my anchor tenant will really be flying, but I better be ready when they are.”

Although Spaceport America does host some launches today—last week UP Aerospace carried out a sounding rocket launch from spaceport property—its anchor tenant is Virgin Galactic, whose suborbital vehicle has been under development for several years. That uncertainty in schedule does create some project management challenges, she said. “I’m trying to hurry as fast as I can” to be ready when Virgin is, she said, although not knowing exactly when that will be. That includes getting a license from the FAA for horizontal launches by some time next year.

The main elements of Spaceport America, including the runway and terminal building, have been built (see “A gateway to space emerges in the desert”, The Space Review, October 24, 2011) but there is still some additional work to do. Last month spaceport officials announced that they would extend the spaceport’s runway from 3,050 to 3,650 meters (10,000 to 12,000 feet). That extension is needed better accommodate the flight characteristics of SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo.

“Now that Virgin Galactic has performed more flight tests and analyses with their SpaceShipTwo spacecraft and WhiteKnightTwo mothership, their fight requirements are now better known and we have determined that a 2,000-foot extension of the existing runway is necessary to ensure safer operation,” Anderson said in a statement. The extension will cost $7 million, with the money in part coming from funds originally planned for the spaceport’s visitor centers, which officials said will be financed differently.

In comments after a talk last week in Washington, Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides confirmed that discussions about a runway extension had been in the works for a couple of years. That extension, he said, is needed to address certain “high and hot” approaches where the additional runway is needed.

“The spaceport has got new people, it’s got new energy, new excitement, and we’re developing a new business plan,” said Oklahoma science and technology secretary McKeever.

“The relatively low air density (due to high airfield altitude), when coupled with commonly high temperatures at the New Mexico site, can require higher take-off and landing speeds as well as increased rollout distances,” Virgin Galactic added in a statement provided to The Space Review. “This extension allows a wider margin for performance in normal as well as various contingency scenarios, enabling us to operate more safely, within reasonable constraints, from the site on a year-round basis.”

A related attribute to patience may be perseverance. A decade ago it appeared Oklahoma was in the lead to capture business from the emerging suborbital spaceflight market. It planned to convert a former air force base in the state into a spaceport at a fraction of the cost of building a new facility (see “Little spaceport on the prairie”, The Space Review, June 7, 2004). State tax incentives attracted one company, Rocketplane, to set up operations in the state, with plans to fly out of the state’s spaceport.

However, Rocketplane’s vehicle failed to materialize and, in 2010, the company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Without an anchor tenant there were rumors that the future of the Oklahoma spaceport itself was in jeopardy, in danger of becoming another one of those concepts form a decade ago that failed to materialize.

State officials, though, saying they’re making a new push to attract customers to the spaceport. “The spaceport has got new people, it’s got new energy, new excitement, and we’re developing a new business plan,” said Stephen McKeever, secretary of science and technology for Oklahoma, at the FAA conference.

McKeever didn’t indicate any specific companies interested in flying out of Oklahoma, but he played up the facility’s major asset, a runway over 4,100 meters (13,500 feet) long. “Stratolauncher, I hope you’re listening,” he quipped, a reference to the company developing an air launch system that will require a long runway (see “Stratolaunch: SpaceShipThree or Space Goose?”, The Space Review, December 19, 2011). The spaceport also benefits, he said, from an “extremely supportive” governor, Mary Fallon.

The delays and difficulties experienced in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and elsewhere have not deterred other states from exploring their options for spaceports. A recent entrant is Colorado, which is pursuing a spaceport license for Front Range Airport, a general aviation airport east of Denver with two 2,450-meter (8,000-foot) runways that can be extended to 3,050 meters (10,000 feet). The effort has the backing of Colorado’s governor and its state legislature, which is currently deliberating legislation to provide liability indemnification similar to what exists in several other states with commercial spaceports.

“We are very serious about working to make commercial spaceflight an important part of out future,” said Virginia transportation secretary Connaughton. “We intend to continue to invest in it.”

Dennis Heap, the executive director of Front Range Airport, said the facility has a unique combination of isolation yet proximity to a major city. “There’s not another parcel of land like it in the entire United States,” he said. The airport itself is relatively isolated, with no housing developments or industrial facilities nearby, yet it is close to both an interstate highway and rail line, and Denver International Airport is only 10 kilometers away.

But why take the time and effort—and, often, tens or hundreds of millions of dollars—to develop a spaceport given those challenges? Heap played up the perceived economic benefits of a spaceport. The facility, he said, would raise the profile of the state’s aerospace industry and also add another dimension of the state’s tourism industry. “It’s going to be a long-term economic driver, we know,” he said.

That response was echoed by others on the panel. Richard Biter, assistant secretary of transportation for Florida, said his state’s goal was to increase the size of the state’s space industry by 2020, and also to diversify it so that it’s less reliant exclusively on launches for NASA and the Defense Department. Craig Campbell, president and CEO of Alaska Aerospace, the state corporation that runs the Kodiak Launch Complex, said space is a way to diversify the state’s economy and also retain trained engineers who might move elsewhere to work in the space field. “We spend a lot of money through our universities to train engineers so that they can live in Virginia, Florida, and California to do space stuff,” he said.

Some states are starting to treat spaceports as part of their overall transportation infrastructure, putting them on the same level as airports, seaports, and highways. Biter said Florida has a “strategic intermodal system” that the state uses to prioritize spending on transportation infrastructure. Space, he said, was recently added to that system. “That means when we sit down with our stakeholders from across the state and say, ‘Where do we need to make our investments?’, Space Florida is there,” he said. That, he added, includes the other transportation infrastructure needed to support spaceport activities.

In Virginia, operation of the state’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island was transferred last year to the state’s transportation department. “I am not a space person,” Virginia transportation secretary Sean Connaughton admitted on the FAA panel. However, he said he sees synergies with other capabilities in the state, such as supporting the state’s aerospace industry. “We are very serious about working to make commercial spaceflight an important part of out future,” he said. “We intend to continue to invest in it.”

The spaceports themselves, though, are also seeking to diversify their revenue streams in order to pay for their operations, particularly as some commercial space ventures are slow to develop. Anderson said Spaceport America will be “totally self-supporting” by 2014, relying on a combination of user fees, lease and rent payments, and revenue from visitors to the center. The Oklahoma spaceport, said McKeever, gets revenue today from the Air Force, which uses the runway for takeoff and landing practice; the state is also looking to the growing UAV market as another customer for the facility.

But given the challenges existing spaceports face in finding customers, is there a need for more? “First of all, I think competition is a good thing,” Anderson said. “But we’re also very different, and I think we can learn a lot from each other.”

Campbell, speaking at an Aerospace States Association policy forum in Washington last month, thinks there may be a saturation point for spaceports doing orbital launches. “There are a finite number of rockets that are going to be launched,” he said. “You may be, for the short term, reaching the limit” for the number of orbital launches. There is still room, though, for suborbital facilities, he suggested.

That means there’s still plenty of hope that spaceports will be able to attract business from companies that in many cases have yet to fly their vehicles, helping to support and diversify their economies. It’s that hope that’s driving activity and spending in several states, and interest in even more, as Colorado and now Alabama have recently demonstrated, let alone interest outside the US. How many will ultimately be successful remains to be seen, but history suggests many of the projects won’t get off the launching pad. So, if all else fails, Yuri, you at least have that hockey trophy.