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 4 of 4)
Pulling on a green wool hoodie, Salomonsson leads me to his car. We weave through the airport to the back door of his pride and joy: the Arena Arctica, a vast hangar big enough to swallow a 747-400, with room to spare. The Arena was built in 1991 to host research flights and cold-weather testing for Boeing. Since then, Airbus, NASA, and Eurocopter have all put aircraft through their paces in Kiruna, and the hangar has served as home base for atmospheric research flights.
Inside is a decommissioned Soviet Myasishchev M-55 spyplane capable of reaching altitudes of more than 70,000 feet. Even with its 122-foot wingspan—just a few feet shorter than Virgin’s mothership—the craft looked small in the 70,000-square-foot hangar. Heated concrete floors can keep airplanes warm overnight in bad weather, so there’s no need for constant de-icing. With creative parking, Salomonsson says, the airport has managed to fit two 737-800s, one MD-80, two Gulfstreams, and a Learjet inside.
The airport and the arena are critical parts of Kiruna’s appeal for Virgin and other commercial spaceflight operators. Spaceport America, near New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range, is being built from scratch, but Kiruna’s infrastructure is already in place. In the last few years, Salomonsson has hosted execs from Virgin several times. Last year, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn and a few dozen space tourists on the company’s waiting list visited Kiruna, where they met local dignitaries (including mayor Stålnacke and members of the Swedish royal family), spent a night in the IceHotel, and toured the Space Research Institute. The airport and the arena were a key stop on the itinerary. “When they arrived, they loved what they saw,” Salomonsson says. “The infrastructure’s already there, so we don’t have to build new from the beginning.”
Whitehorn declined to be interviewed, telling me via e-mail that Virgin Galactic was focused on making a New Mexico launch happen before discussing plans to fly from anywhere else. When pressed, he noted Kiruna’s “unique” attractions: a breathtaking view of the Arctic land and sea, and the Aurora Borealis.
Is it safe to send tourists hurtling through the aurora? Since the phenomenon results from space-borne particles hitting Earth’s upper atmosphere, a short flight through it won’t expose passengers to more radiation than astronauts on the International Space Station absorb in a similar six-minute period. “I would not think it would be dangerous,” says geophysicist Nikolai Østgaard, an aurora researcher at the University of Bergen in Norway.
A bigger question is whether there will be anything to see. The aurora may be best seen from below, where the light created by columns dozens of miles tall appears as a solid wave. “It’s going to be very exciting to see the light they’re flying into, but in a six-minute flight I don’t know what the chances of hitting it are,” Østgaard says. “The aurora moves like curtains, at a couple of hundred meters per second.”
Since announcing Kiruna as a possible spaceport, Virgin Galactic has been tight-lipped about its plans. Lots needs to happen behind the scenes, including regulatory approval from the United States (which may have concerns about exporting technology with potential military applications) and Swedish authorities. In Kiruna, Swedish pragmatism is keeping everyone from counting their space tourism dollars until they see flights take off in New Mexico. “If they are successful in New Mexico, they will come to Kiruna, we hope,” says Stålnacke.
Kiruna’s ready. Through some trick of the imagination, people here seemed to have turned everything I initially imagined as a liability into an asset. Throw in a healthy dose of cautious optimism, and you have the makings of the world’s northernmost spaceport.
Andrew Curry is a writer based in Berlin, Germany. This is his first article for Air & Space/Smithsonian.