Fields of Dreams

Will starry-eyed entrepreneurs transform today’s wide-open spaces into tomorrow’s spaceports?

Spaceport Singapore, envisioned by Space Adventures, Ltd., would cost $115 million. A Singapore-based consortium and the Crown Prince of Ras Al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates are backing the venture. (Space Adventures)
Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

But then last August 2006, Futron issued another report: “Suborbital Space Tourism Demand Revisited.” The new study’s conclusion was slightly sobering: Despite the fact that SpaceShipOne had won the X Prize in the interim, the projected demand for such flights had actually declined. The annual passenger load predicted by 2021 had fallen from the original estimate of 15,700 to 13,000, while anticipated revenues fell from $786 million to $676 million. The price of a suborbital spaceflight, by contrast, had risen from the original figure of $100,000 to $200,000, which happened to be exactly the sum that Virgin Galactic was then quoting for a flight aboard SpaceShipTwo.

Futron theorized that the weakening of projected demand was due to two main factors. One was the doubling of ticket prices; the other was something that had plagued space ventures from the very beginning: delays. The original 2002 study had assumed that commercial suborbital flight would begin in 2006. But 2006 had come and had almost gone, and not a single manned commercial flight had been made, nor had any of the required space vehicles rolled out of the factory.

In the end, there was no getting around the fact that even though they were based on polls and were the product of intelligent analysis, all of these prophecies fell into the realm of sheer theory. What an interviewee will say in a telephone call and what the same person would actually do when faced with the real thing are two entirely separate matters. The people involved were not spending any folding money or putting their lives on the line; they were merely taking part in a survey.

The glib auguries of a “multibillon-dollar industry,” therefore, were pretty much wishful thinking based on guesswork, a phenomenon otherwise known as hype. Sooner or later the reality of the situation will have to be faced.

If we define a spaceport as a site dedicated to launching rockets that can carry tourists into space for private profit, the blunt fact is: There are no spaceports. There are military and federal rocket-launch complexes that have been converted or expanded for commercial uses (see “Payloads Other Than People,” p. 67). There is the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, which has the dual distinction of being the first licensed launch site not co-located with a federal facility and the first U.S. launch site built since the 1960s. But as for spaceports—as defined, there are no such animals in the jungle.

The Oklahoma Spaceport, for example, is a former U.S. Air Force facility (the Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base) that during the 1950s was home to Strategic Air Command B-52s. Today the field consists of a 13,500-foot runway, a couple of abandoned-looking buildings, a control tower, and the most crucial item of all, an on-site golf course. (Didn’t Al Shepard hit a golf ball on the moon?) Rocketplane, the Oklahoma City commercial spaceflight firm, was to be the anchor tenant. But last June, when the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority requested a $2 million appropriation for infrastructure upgrades, the state legislature refused. (“We’re considering what to do about that,” said a Rocketplane spokesperson last October.)

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 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.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus