Spaceport at the Top of the World
How an ore-mining town in Sweden sees a new identity over the horizon.
- By Andrew Curry
- Air & Space magazine, August 2011
Courtesy Swedish Space Corporation
(Page 3 of 4)
To my surprise, those least excited about the arrival of space tourists were members of Kiruna’s scientific community. Esrange, Sweden’s rocket range and the heart of Kiruna’s space industry, sits about 30 miles outside of town, along a snow-covered road that passes through mile after mile of pine forest. Just after dawn—which is to say, at about 8:45 in the morning—I gingerly turn along a sharp bend just in time to see a trio of reindeer plow through the snow on the side of the road and head into the woods.
Finally I climb a low hill and arrive at a security gate. Beyond it is a boxy building topped with telemetry antennas and radomes. Today, Esrange, which stages between 5 and 10 launches per year, is the European Space Agency’s primary site for lofting research rockets. Esrange itself is more of a launch pad than a lab; the staff specialize in getting other people’s experiments into space, or at least high into the atmosphere, whether it’s on rockets or balloons. Center scientists and engineers have built and launched eight satellites, including a space observatory (ODIN) and Sweden’s first satellite, VIKING, which was designed to study the aurora. They’ve also launched more than 550 balloons carrying atmospheric experiments—as well as astronomical instruments that need the clear skies of the upper atmosphere—as high as 24 miles above Earth. Nearly 35 Esrange-launched polar-orbit communications satellites make a total of 150 passes per day over the space center. “We started suborbital flights in 1966,” says Bergström-Roos. “We have all the infrastructure you need for communication with spaceflights.”
Esrange’s isolation makes the site ideal for rocket launches. The payloads parachute to Earth, landing on the 3,240-square-mile range, and within an hour are delivered by helicopter to researchers. At the peak of their suborbital flights, the range’s MAXUS and MASER rockets offer between seven and 13 minutes of near-weightlessness. Payloads are usually physics, chemistry, or biology experiments, some weighing up to 2,200 pounds. The constant, dry cold creates snow that’s almost dusty, so satellite dishes and buildings are clear of ice.
The day I visit, the space center’s restaurant is packed with students from all over Europe learning the rules for their balloon and rocket experiments. At the buffet line, Bergström-Roos introduces me to Lennart Poromaa, a gray-haired Swedish engineer who has spent nearly 24 years sending rockets and balloons up from Esrange.
Poromaa has doubts about sending up regular manned flights like the ones Virgin has planned. As a trio of Poles chat at one end of the table, I ask Poromaa if he would take a ride into space if money were no object. For a man whose job is sending million-dollar experiments skyward on a regular basis, Poromaa is remarkably uninterested. “In sounding rockets, you don’t have any people,” he says. “What we are dealing with, if we have a failure, a lot of money is lost but we don’t kill anybody. You can’t use a destruct charge if you have people on board.”
Next to him, Bergström-Roos cringes a bit. Poromaa shrugs: “I know too much about the risks. I would not be the first one to go,” he says, finishing his chicken. “You can never say never, but…”
When the first people fly into space from above the Arctic Circle, they’ll take off from Peter Salomonsson’s airport. From his first floor office, overlooking Kiruna’s snow-covered runway, the airport manager can easily keep an eye on the three flights that take off and land here each day, mostly connecting flights from SAS’s hub near Stockholm.
As long as the runway stays cold, ice isn’t a problem. “When it’s very dry and very cold, we have very small problems to land aircraft at Kiruna,” Salomonsson says. Virgin’s six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, last year christened Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Enterprise, would lift off from the runway with the help of a mothership, and glide back to the ground and land in the same place.
Like many of the Kirunans I met, Salomonsson has a knack for turning what some might consider the town’s weaknesses into selling points. He even counts the lack of air traffic above the Arctic Circle as one of Kiruna’s competitive advantages. “We have lots of free slot time,” he says. “Ten hours a day you can fly other things, like spaceflights.”