A Tour of Earth’s Spaceports

Will the wagers of a few entrepreneurs yield a golden age in space exploration?

An Ariane 5 rocket launches from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. (Spotting973/ Wikimedia Commons)
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In his new book, Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight, former Air & Space associate editor Joe Pappalardo documents the rise of private companies as leaders in the aerospace industry. As part of his research, Pappalardo visited every operational spaceport in the United States. He recently spoke with senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi.

Air & Space: Why did you decide to write this book?

Pappalardo: When I was an editor at Popular Mechanics, I kept chasing space launch stories. At places like Vandenberg Air Force Base, Mojave Air & Space Port, and Wallops Island, I found a new spirit of innovation stirring. When I realized that this new space industry boom was influencing the entire nation—and world—the idea of a book chronicling this pivotal time of change became urgent.

How long did it take you to visit every working spaceport in the U.S.?

The scope of the book covers visits between 2011 and 2017, and several places got multiple visits. I wish I had had the chance to go to Kodiak, Alaska. As the book came together, more places applied to the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] for spaceport licenses. I couldn’t visit all of them but was able to observe how an airport in Waco, Texas, was navigating the process. That served as a detailed stand-in for many airports that have an eye on hosting air-launched rockets and spaceplanes. The long time span actually helped focus the book, since so much change occurred at places large and small. By the time 2017 rolled around, the trends of what I call the “reinvention of spaceflight” were firmly established and demonstrated, making the book a useful account of how this happened.

What is the most memorable thing you saw during your tour of the spaceports?

Every place has its own slate of memorable people and things. I have to say that a trip to French Guiana to watch an Arianespace launch was one highlight. Those Europeans run a fascinating operation there in the jungle. Between the monkeys, French Foreign Legion, and ruins of a penal colony, it was the most exotic trip for sure. Watching a sunset launch—and catching the stage separations in my binoculars—was magical.

Another memorable moment was a launch from Wallops Island, Virginia. I was able to spend some time with researchers flying a payload to the moon—a laser communication system—and that gave me a real emotional stake in the launch. You can forget how much human effort goes into the payloads, and that they are worth more (literally and figuratively) than the rides they launch on. The fact that the pad later suffered a major launch disaster—burned to a crisp, not to get too technical about it—made the impressions of the earlier mission more salient.

Do you see any commonalities between Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson?

Branson is a showman, with a tendency to overpromise. Bezos is a quiet titan establishing deep roots in the business. And Musk alone has dove into real missions as a visible, iconic trailblazer.

But it’s more interesting to see what they have in common. And that’s vision and tenacity. Each saw an opportunity in spaceflight—commercial satellite launches, space tourism, government contracts—and moved into the industry as newcomers expressly to shake things up. The results are real, because each man stuck with the plan despite risks and headwinds. Branson and Spaceport America [situated on 18,000 acres in New Mexico] are finally on the verge of fulfilling some of its promise, Bezos’ new facility is gleaming in the Florida sun, and Musk has become a symbol of entrepreneurial fortitude after returning to launch after high-profile failures.

What are your impressions of Elon Musk?

I’ve met Elon several times, usually in interviews. I’ve found him articulate and willing to sink into discussion about the minutiae of engineering. He doesn’t seem to suffer fools gladly, and makes bold statements casually. He once told me he feels fear of failure very keenly, and that stuck with me as his cutting-edge engineering projects move forward.

Which private spaceflight company do you think will be the first to achieve solid commercial success?

SpaceX makes money on launches now, and has a full manifest of paying customers, including many who are not Uncle Sam. With a new heavy rocket now demonstrated [the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launched successfully on February 6 from Kennedy Space Center] and contracts for that already signed, the future looks rosy for Elon Musk.

But what may actually be the future battleground are competing plans for internet satellite constellations, operated by the space companies themselves. Blue Origin and SpaceX may be on opposite sides of that struggle—something to keep an eye on. And we’ll see if Virgin Galactic can take advantage of the smaller-sat trend to create new markets for its air-launched system, so they are lofting more than rich people on their hardware.

Do you think the American public is interested in the work that these young spaceflight companies are doing?

I see great interest, and it’s growing. SpaceX has done the most to promote the idea, but their approach also celebrates the ethos of engineering: test it until it breaks, fix it, and move on. So that’s nice to see, as he tries to land spent boosters and builds new launchers like Falcon Heavy. That car in space became an instant iconic image, even for those who have no idea what a heliocentric orbit is.

It’s nice to see industry veterans getting excited by the renewed activity at Cape Canaveral and grizzled engineers finally getting their chance to work on a bunch of new, flight-ready spacecraft. But the excitement of the younger engineers has been even more fun to see. Spaceport America hosts a college rocket competition [with the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association], and I attended. There were 1,000 students there. The Spaceport America Cup showed me where to find the enthusiasm that matters most—the next generation who will follow on the trailblazing that the book details.

As private space companies continue to chart the way, is NASA becoming irrelevant?

I don’t think so. I actually think these developments can help NASA achieve great things. Lowering the price of space launches and increasing the number of ways to get into various orbits can only benefit the space agency. There’s plenty for NASA to do besides build rockets, like making scientific rovers for other planets and devising new satellites to monitor Earth. Projects like the lunar gateway—a spaceport of sorts, parked around the moon—become more achievable when it’s cheaper and easier to get off Earth. So I fall into the camp that this will change NASA, but could invigorate the agency to do more exploration. That is, if Congress lets the agency break its addiction to building launch vehicles.

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