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)
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In 1989, a Kiruna entrepreneur named Yngve Bergqvist changed that completely. Bergqvist organized an ice festival in Jukkasjärvi (seven miles from Kiruna), inviting artists from Japan to carve ice sculptures and construct an exhibition building made of ice and snow. The festival caught on, and a few years later, Bergqvist lodged a group of corporate clients in the empty ice house overnight.

They survived, and a business was born—the IceHotel, which has grown from its humble origins into a global brand. Each winter, a hotel with dozens of rooms is built out of a mixture of snow and ice (“snice,” IceHotel employees call it). Guests pay between $200 and $600 to spend a night bundled in thermal sleeping bags on reindeer skins in a 23-degree room.

The IceHotel’s fame transformed Kiruna into a winter tourist attraction. The town’s high season is now mid-December through the end of March. Underemployed truck drivers plow racetracks on frozen lakes for car companies and tourists who want to try ice driving; there are snowmobile and sled-dog tours for adventurers, and reindeer-spotting trips for nature lovers.

In many places, someone wanting to build a hotel out of ice—and charge people $600 a night to sleep in it—might have been laughed out of town. But here people seem to take the unusual in stride. Perhaps that’s one reason the town is so supportive of Virgin Galactic’s equally outrageous plans. “Bergqvist showed it was possible to make crazy success out of what’s just outside the house,” Törmä says. “Many people are very proud of these crazy ideas.”

Spaceflight could mean yet another tourist boom in Kiruna. Johanna Bergström-Roos, information manager at Esrange space center, says the minimum stay for space tourists would be three days—two for orientation and classes to make sure people know how to handle themselves in flight, and one for the flight itself.

And those rich enough to buy $200,000 trips to space are going to want to share their experience with spouses, kids, maybe parents and friends. “If a space tourist comes, they’ll bring five, 10, 15 people along,” Bergström-Roos says. All those people will need places to stay and things to do. Plans are already in the works: Bergström-Roos showed me sketches for Space City 2020, a development program that would capitalize on the spaceport’s success with space summer camps, centrifuges to simulate high G-forces, and video links to let people on the ground share the spaceflight experience in real time.

Dan Bjork, the IceHotel’s marketing director, says the hotel is working with Spaceport Sweden (a consortium made up of four corporations in Kiruna, including the Swedish Space Corporation, and the IceHotel) to come up with a plan to pamper Virgin’s customers, from accommodations and entertainment to working with Virgin’s medical staff to produce just the right pre-flight menu for their four-star restaurant.

Bergström-Roos estimates that the space industry in Kiruna employs 500 people right now. “If we can double that in 10 years, it will be a great success,” she says. “We know the mine will not be there forever.”

To my surprise, those least excited about the arrival of space tourists were members of Kiruna’s scientific community. Esrange, Sweden’s rocket range and the heart of Kiruna’s space industry, sits about 30 miles outside of town, along a snow-covered road that passes through mile after mile of pine forest. Just after dawn—which is to say, at about 8:45 in the morning—I gingerly turn along a sharp bend just in time to see a trio of reindeer plow through the snow on the side of the road and head into the woods.

Finally I climb a low hill and arrive at a security gate. Beyond it is a boxy building topped with telemetry antennas and radomes. Today, Esrange, which stages between 5 and 10 launches per year, is the European Space Agency’s primary site for lofting research rockets. Esrange itself is more of a launch pad than a lab; the staff specialize in getting other people’s experiments into space, or at least high into the atmosphere, whether it’s on rockets or balloons. Center scientists and engineers have built and launched eight satellites, including a space observatory (ODIN) and Sweden’s first satellite, VIKING, which was designed to study the aurora. They’ve also launched more than 550 balloons carrying atmospheric experiments—as well as astronomical instruments that need the clear skies of the upper atmosphere—as high as 24 miles above Earth. Nearly 35 Esrange-launched polar-orbit communications satellites make a total of 150 passes per day over the space center. “We started suborbital flights in 1966,” says Bergström-Roos. “We have all the infrastructure you need for communication with spaceflights.”

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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