Whitehorn declined to be interviewed, telling me via e-mail that Virgin Galactic was focused on making a New Mexico launch happen before discussing plans to fly from anywhere else. When pressed, he noted Kiruna’s “unique” attractions: a breathtaking view of the Arctic land and sea, and the Aurora Borealis.
Is it safe to send tourists hurtling through the aurora? Since the phenomenon results from space-borne particles hitting Earth’s upper atmosphere, a short flight through it won’t expose passengers to more radiation than astronauts on the International Space Station absorb in a similar six-minute period. “I would not think it would be dangerous,” says geophysicist Nikolai Østgaard, an aurora researcher at the University of Bergen in Norway.
A bigger question is whether there will be anything to see. The aurora may be best seen from below, where the light created by columns dozens of miles tall appears as a solid wave. “It’s going to be very exciting to see the light they’re flying into, but in a six-minute flight I don’t know what the chances of hitting it are,” Østgaard says. “The aurora moves like curtains, at a couple of hundred meters per second.”
Since announcing Kiruna as a possible spaceport, Virgin Galactic has been tight-lipped about its plans. Lots needs to happen behind the scenes, including regulatory approval from the United States (which may have concerns about exporting technology with potential military applications) and Swedish authorities. In Kiruna, Swedish pragmatism is keeping everyone from counting their space tourism dollars until they see flights take off in New Mexico. “If they are successful in New Mexico, they will come to Kiruna, we hope,” says Stålnacke.
Kiruna’s ready. Through some trick of the imagination, people here seemed to have turned everything I initially imagined as a liability into an asset. Throw in a healthy dose of cautious optimism, and you have the makings of the world’s northernmost spaceport.
Andrew Curry is a writer based in Berlin, Germany. This is his first article for Air & Space/Smithsonian.