Fields of Dreams
Will starry-eyed entrepreneurs transform today's wide-open spaces into tomorrow's spaceports?
- By Ed Regis
- Air & Space magazine, May 2007
(Page 3 of 6)
Spaceport Washington is an ember from the previous wildfire of space optimism, ignited in 1996 by VentureStar, a proposed Lockheed Martin launch vehicle that was to dramatically lower the cost of getting stuff into orbit. The wedge-shaped, single-stage VentureStar was to launch vertically from Edwards Air Force Base in California and land horizontally, space shuttle-like, on a very long runway. Washington’s Grant County International Airport with its 13,452-foot runway was one of several western sites that fit the bill.
The cancellation of the VentureStar program in 2001 did not dampen the state’s zeal nor that of Aero-Space Port International, a real estate development group, for opening a spaceport in Washington. ASPI corporate counsel Kim Foster says, “Because of our legacy with the Boeing company, Washington state is proactive when it comes to space.” Despite the airport’s wide-open spaces (a feature it shares with many proposed spaceports), no company has indicated enough interest to get the state to apply for a Federal Aviation Administration license to operate a launch site.
One potential spaceport operator who has applied to the FAA is Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. His company Blue Origin launched a rocket (which reached a height of 255 feet) from a site in west Texas last November, but there’s no spaceport there yet.
Even the Mojave Spaceport (a.k.a. the Mojave Airport and Civilian Aerospace Test Center), notwithstanding its having been the site of the only successful manned private spaceflights in history, and having been licensed in 2004 by the FAA as a spaceport, always had been, and thereafter continued to function as, an airport, identified as MHV in official FAA publications, Notices to Airmen, airport directories, instrument approach and departure plates, navigational charts, and so on.
The fabled spaceports of Dubai, Singapore, and elsewhere exist primarily in the form of Web sites and/or misty artist’s conceptions.
Against all this, the only launch site that has remotely approximated the concept of an operational spaceport for private, as opposed to government, launch vehicles and payloads was a tiny patch of concrete in the New Mexico desert across the San Andres Mountains from the White Sands Missile Range command center. Here, at Spaceport America, on September 25, 2006, UP Aerospace (UPA), a private rocket company based in Connecticut, attempted its first commercial launch. Because Spaceport America does not yet have its spaceport license, UP Aerospace obtained FAA approval to launch from temporary facilities.
The story began the night before, at the “Mission Safety Briefing” held at the Hilton Las Cruces, which, even though it was some 100 miles from the launch site, was serving as UPA mission headquarters. The mood was giddy. Not once at the safety briefing was the word “safety” mentioned. Mostly, the event gave UPA the opportunity to introduce its launch crew and allowed the company’s college, high school, and elementary school clients to describe their science payloads. Colleges in New Mexico, Connecticut, and Colorado were flying experiment packages, such as a three-axis accelerometer, a magnetometer, and a Geiger counter, among other things. Two fifth-grade students, Alison and Lydia from Farnsworth Aerospace Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota, had placed three wristwatches—two analog and one digital—aboard to find out which type would better survive microgravity, reentry, landing, and the 13 Gs of liftoff. In all, there were about 40 payloads inside the SpaceLoft XL-1 rocket, a 20-foot-long, 10-inch-wide craft that would be shot into the blue the following day.
Next morning, members of the media, UPA clients, and guests left the hotel at about 3:30 a.m. for the 100-mile drive to the VIP viewing area, which was about three miles from the launch site. The site itself consisted of little more than a concrete launch pad, the launcher rail (called “T Rex”), and a couple of modular structures functioning as the vehicle’s final assembly building and the launch control center.