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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Esrange’s isolation makes the site ideal for rocket launches. The payloads parachute to Earth, landing on the 3,240-square-mile range, and within an hour are delivered by helicopter to researchers. At the peak of their suborbital flights, the range’s MAXUS and MASER rockets offer between seven and 13 minutes of near-weightlessness. Payloads are usually physics, chemistry, or biology experiments, some weighing up to 2,200 pounds. The constant, dry cold creates snow that’s almost dusty, so satellite dishes and buildings are clear of ice.

The day I visit, the space center’s restaurant is packed with students from all over Europe learning the rules for their balloon and rocket experiments. At the buffet line, Bergström-Roos introduces me to Lennart Poromaa, a gray-haired Swedish engineer who has spent nearly 24 years sending rockets and balloons up from Esrange.

Poromaa has doubts about sending up regular manned flights like the ones Virgin has planned. As a trio of Poles chat at one end of the table, I ask Poromaa if he would take a ride into space if money were no object. For a man whose job is sending million-dollar experiments skyward on a regular basis, Poromaa is remarkably uninterested. “In sounding rockets, you don’t have any people,” he says. “What we are dealing with, if we have a failure, a lot of money is lost but we don’t kill anybody. You can’t use a destruct charge if you have people on board.”

Next to him, Bergström-Roos cringes a bit. Poromaa shrugs: “I know too much about the risks. I would not be the first one to go,” he says, finishing his chicken. “You can never say never, but…”

When the first people fly into space from above the Arctic Circle, they’ll take off from Peter Salomonsson’s airport. From his first floor office, overlooking Kiruna’s snow-covered runway, the airport manager can easily keep an eye on the three flights that take off and land here each day, mostly connecting flights from SAS’s hub near Stockholm.

As long as the runway stays cold, ice isn’t a problem. “When it’s very dry and very cold, we have very small problems to land aircraft at Kiruna,” Salomonsson says. Virgin’s six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, last year christened Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Enterprise, would lift off from the runway with the help of a mothership, and glide back to the ground and land in the same place.

Like many of the Kirunans I met, Salomonsson has a knack for turning what some might consider the town’s weaknesses into selling points. He even counts the lack of air traffic above the Arctic Circle as one of Kiruna’s competitive advantages. “We have lots of free slot time,” he says. “Ten hours a day you can fly other things, like spaceflights.”

Pulling on a green wool hoodie, Salomonsson leads me to his car. We weave through the airport to the back door of his pride and joy: the Arena Arctica, a vast hangar big enough to swallow a 747-400, with room to spare. The Arena was built in 1991 to host research flights and cold-weather testing for Boeing. Since then, Airbus, NASA, and Eurocopter have all put aircraft through their paces in Kiruna, and the hangar has served as home base for atmospheric research flights.

Inside is a decommissioned Soviet Myasishchev M-55 spyplane capable of reaching altitudes of more than 70,000 feet. Even with its 122-foot wingspan—just a few feet shorter than Virgin’s mothership—the craft looked small in the 70,000-square-foot hangar. Heated concrete floors can keep airplanes warm overnight in bad weather, so there’s no need for constant de-icing. With creative parking, Salomonsson says, the airport has managed to fit two 737-800s, one MD-80, two Gulfstreams, and a Learjet inside.

The airport and the arena are critical parts of Kiruna’s appeal for Virgin and other commercial spaceflight operators. Spaceport America, near New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range, is being built from scratch, but Kiruna’s infrastructure is already in place. In the last few years, Salomonsson has hosted execs from Virgin several times. Last year, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn and a few dozen space tourists on the company’s waiting list visited Kiruna, where they met local dignitaries (including mayor Stålnacke and members of the Swedish royal family), spent a night in the IceHotel, and toured the Space Research Institute. The airport and the arena were a key stop on the itinerary. “When they arrived, they loved what they saw,” Salomonsson says. “The infrastructure’s already there, so we don’t have to build new from the beginning.”

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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