Spaceport at the Top of the World

How an ore-mining town in Sweden sees a new identity over the horizon.

Located in Sweden’s isolated far north, the tiny town of Kiruna, with its Esrange rocket range, hopes to become a major space tourism attraction. (Courtesy Swedish Space Corporation)
Air & Space Magazine

On paper, the Swedish town of Kiruna seems an unlikely place to build Europe’s first commercial spaceport. Located 90 miles above the Arctic Circle and nearly 600 miles north of Stockholm, Kiruna boasts a staggering set of disadvantages: an iron mine relentlessly expanding, eating away at the ground beneath the town, a vast expanse of forests, no sunlight for weeks at a time, and temperatures that for four months of the year barely rise above 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Yet in 2007, the Swedish government announced an “agreement of understanding” with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to make Kiruna the company’s first launch site outside the United States. If all goes according to schedule, Virgin could be flying space tourists to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere from New Mexico as early as next year. With plans for several flights each week by 2013, Kiruna could soon be hosting hundreds of space tourists. Suborbital spaceflights from Kiruna, Virgin Galactic spokespeople have promised, could send tourists straight through the Aurora Borealis.

Though it will be new to many tourists, Spaceport Sweden is not undiscovered. Because of its remote location and minimal air traffic, Kiruna has been home to an array of aerospace activities for almost half a century. The Swedish government established a space research center here in 1964. The center, called Esrange, today includes a 3,240-square-mile range for launching sounding rockets.

But it’s the prospect of people flying into space from their snow-covered airfield that has the residents of Kiruna excited. And hundreds of people have put down $20,000 deposits to be among the first tourists to fly with Virgin Galactic into space. The experience is targeted at a very narrow market, namely people with $200,000 to spend on a vacation. With typical Virgin flair, the Kiruna flight is being packaged as an Arctic adventure complete with a stay in a hotel made of ice and snow, sleigh and snowmobile rides through the wilderness nearby, and, of course, spaceflight.

I went to Kiruna to find out how the company leading the space tourism race became interested in the town despite its handicaps. Kiruna has few natural resources beyond a rich vein of iron ore stretching more than a mile below the ground. It’s not a skiing destination, and there are few cultural attractions. There’s an ample supply of reindeer, but otherwise little charismatic wildlife.

Yet the town has been gifted with something less tangible: a willingness to bet on seemingly crazy ideas—and brilliant marketing. “We have the space facilities with Esrange, and a lot of experience having tourism in Kiruna,” Mayor Kenneth Stålnacke says. “It’s a good idea to marry these together: space and tourism.”

Kiruna’s economy is dominated by the mine, which is on the edge of town. In the past five years, the mine has made the town famous, thanks to a serious problem with an audacious solution. Since the seam of iron ore cuts diagonally below the town, the excavation has slowly been consuming the ground underneath Kiruna’s houses and streets, causing subsidence. Over the next 50 years, the whole town will be relocated to a safer location. A few houses, century-old wood structures built for the first mine workers, have already been shifted. The danger zone is now just a few hundred yards from the town hall, which will be abandoned by 2013.

Kjell Törmä, editor of KirunaTidningen, a local magazine, has spent the last few years documenting the move. One afternoon, not long after dark (which is to say, slightly before 4 p.m.), he picked me up at the doomed town hall in a red Mitsubishi and drove me through neighborhoods destined to collapse within a decade. The century-old mine, he says, is the town’s reason for being, though of its 24,000 residents, the company employs only 1,800 people, of whom 400 work in the mine itself.

Like everyone in town, Törmä is enthusiastic about the potential of space tourism to bring jobs to Kiruna. “Most people know we can’t just live on the mine,” he says. Its heyday was in the 1970s, and since then, the town has shrunk by 7,000. As operations at the mine have gotten more automated, the number of people working there has dropped by half. “In the ’70s, the thinking changed a little bit,” says Törmä. “People realized we need to have other businesses.”

The town began investing in tourism, trying to attract visitors during Kiruna’s short summer. White-water rafting, fly-fishing, survival training, and canoeing were all popular. Some people came just to experience the 24 hours of sunlight at summer’s peak. But for more than half the year, the town’s hotels were empty.

About Andrew Curry
Andrew Curry

Andrew Curry is a Berlin-based journalist who writes about science and history for a variety of publications, including National Geographic, Nature, and Wired. He is a contributing editor at Archaeology and has visited archaeological excavations on five continents. (Photo Credit: Jennifer Porto)

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