An epidemic is creeping across the face of the Earth, one that has nothing to do with bird flu, West Nile, or any other microbe in the news, but rather with a disorder that appears to affect the judgment of those afflicted and magnify their ambitions. It’s a uniquely 21st century technological manifestation known as…The Spaceport. Infected with enthusiasm for the new businesses promising to launch masses of humanity into space—Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for example, has signed up as many as 1,000 passengers for an up-and-back trip—people have suggested building spaceports in places like Upham, New Mexico; Burns Flat, Oklahoma; Van Horn, Texas; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; and in Singapore, Sweden, Nova Scotia, and Australia. (For an interactive map, click here.)
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The forces behind spaceport fever include national, state, and local governments, crown princes, private investors, dot-com billionaires, regular billionaires, aerospace engineers, test pilots, former astronauts, rocket hobbyists, and space cadets of every stripe. All seem to believe that spaceports will be the hot new industry, the next biotech, a completely novel sector of commerce that will produce tall geysers of cold cash and bring jobs, rocket paparazzi, and throngs of deep-pocketed tourists, spectators, and assorted space-niks swarming into the spaceport’s neighborhood. In a scrubby patch of southern New Mexico, for example, a spaceport—Spaceport America—is poised to bring economic salvation to a state that ranks 39th in gross state product.
“Potentially it’s 6,000 jobs,” said New Mexico governor (and now presidential candidate) Bill Richardson last year. “The potential for tourism, for jobs, for new technologies moving into New Mexico is huge.”
It was Richardson himself who was responsible for bringing Virgin Galactic to the state as Spaceport America’s anchor tenant—a feat akin to getting Microsoft to move to Santa Fe, perhaps, except for the minor detail that Virgin Galactic had, at that point, no operational spacecraft in the stable and wouldn’t for some time.
Jerry Larson, president of UP (pronounced up!) Aerospace, another Spaceport America tenant, is also bullish on the spaceport’s future. “There’s this huge market waiting there,” Larson told the Rocky Mountain News last September. “It’s a multibillion-dollar industry waiting to be birthed.”
Admittedly, in the case of New Mexico’s spaceport, a few skeptics were lurking in the wings, people whose somewhat more jaundiced visions were not of spaceports but of space pork. In 2005, the New Mexico legislature appropriated $100 million of the estimated $225 million required for spaceport construction, but state senator John Grubesic wasn’t having any of it. “This is your classic Old West story of your snake-oil salesman who comes to the dying town promising to revitalize it,” he said in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Unfortunately, people have bought it, hook, line, and sinker.”
(The “dying town” in this case could well be Truth or Consequences [née Hot Springs], about 30 miles west of the spaceport, population 7,289. That this gritty little village, composed mainly of gas stations, Mexican restaurants, saloons, Mexican restaurants, laundromats, and Mexican restaurants, could use some major revitalization was beyond doubt.)
But for all the P.T. Barnum hucksterism around it, it’s not as if the spaceport-to-riches scenario were built on nothing but dreams. On October 4, 2004, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, thereby demonstrating that private companies could launch humans into space. The week before the winning flight, Rutan and Richard Branson announced a deal whereby Rutan would license the SpaceShipOne technology to Branson for a new company, Virgin Galactic, that would take paying passengers on flights into space—to an altitude of 60 miles. A spate of other companies immediately announced similar plans but without proven technology to back them up (see “Go Ballistic!” Feb./Mar. 2006).
What did back them up was a market study, issued in October 2002 by the Futron Corporation, a consulting firm located in Bethesda, Maryland. In a 50-page report entitled “Space Tourism Market Study: Suborbital Space Travel,” the company claimed to be providing an objective assessment of an unknown and unproven market. Futron had commissioned Zogby International, a polling firm, to survey 450 well-off individuals in an effort to gauge their willingness to pay handsome fees for a space experience. The survey considered factors such as income levels, vacation and leisure spending, physical fitness, perception of the riskiness of traveling into space, willingness to undergo a week of training and to experience zero-G flight, and so on. Zogby asked whether the chief appeal of a spaceflight was the view of Earth from space, the acceleration of a rocket launch, or something else. The company even fine-tuned the results by adjusting for those whose desire to fly into space was tied up with being a pioneer, one of the first to go.
The Futron study’s conclusion was that by 2021, some 15,700 passengers would be flying into suborbital space per year, generating total annual revenues of $786 million. A separate study of orbital flight demand concluded that in the same time period, up to 60 passengers would be spending $300 million per year, for total revenues of almost $1.1 billion annually. That was not quite the “multibillion-dollar industry” spaceport boosters had forecast, but still, it was big money.