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How Spaceports Will Work


Spaceports of Today and Tomorrow
SpaceShipOne coming down for a landing at the Mojave Airport and Spaceport.
SpaceShipOne coming down for a landing at the Mojave Airport and Spaceport.

The Mojave Airport and Spaceport in Mojave, Calif. has led the way in the spaceport industry since it was the site of the first privately funded spaceflight in 2004 with the launch of SpaceShipOne. Although developed from an existing airport, the spaceport has a 12,500-foot (3,810-meter) runway for horizontal launches. As the only spaceport in the United States so far to facilitate a private manned flight [source: Regis], the Mojave Airport and Spaceport has become an important hub for spaceflight research and development.

But there may soon be a new kid on the block. In 2008, officials in New Mexico broke ground on a barren stretch of desert in Las Cruces for what will eventually become Spaceport America. Costing an estimated $225 million, it has already attracted Virgin Galactic and Up Aerospace to call it home. Virgin Galactic will be to Spaceport America what Delta Airlines is to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

If completed on time by early 2010, Spaceport America will become the first "purpose-built commercial spaceport" , meaning a spaceport specifically constructed to facilitate space tourism [source: Spaceport America]. As such, it may serve as a template for future commercial spaceports. With federal and state funding and a recently passed tax district, it has viable backing to succeed. In addition, the 3,900-foot (1188-meter) elevation and stretch of open landscape also provide the ideal setting for launches [source: Silverman].

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Richard Branson of Virgin celebrate the partnership of Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Richard Branson of Virgin celebrate the partnership of Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic.
Rick Scibelli/Getty Images

On the other side of the world, plans for a Spaceport Singapore were publicized in 2006. With financial assistance from the United Arab Emirates, Spaceport Singapore reportedly joined with Space Adventures space tourism company in a public-private partnership to create a mixed tourist and commercial attraction similar to Spaceport America [source: Spaceport Singapore]. However, no reported progress has been made [source: Regis].

With its first suborbital flight scheduled for 2012, Spaceport Sweden plans to become Europe's base for space tourism. Located in Kiruna, Sweden, the spaceport is a co-project of the Sweden Space Corporation, the Kiruna Airport and the neighboring ICEHOTEL and business development company Progressum [source: Spaceport Sweden]. The Swedish spaceport has also partnered with Virgin Galactic to facilitate its suborbital flights. Kiruna's icy wilderness near the Arctic Circle offers the vacant land and airspace required for spaceflight.

Like the artistic renderings for the mysterious Spaceport Singapore, the Spaceport America design resembles a sleek new airport with the terminal residing underground, ringed with skylights to let in natural light and combine architectural drama with environmentally friendly design. The 100,000 square foot (9,290 square meters) facility would house a hangar, terminal, lounge and Virgin Galactic pre- and post flight training areas [source: Spaceport America]. One study performed by the University of New Mexico projected that the spaceport would offer 2,300 jobs worth more than $300 million [source: Spaceport America].

Spaceport America's glamour does not discount the usefulness of other stateside commercial spaceports in Oklahoma, Virginia, Alaska and Florida. The difference is that the spaceports were converted from old federal launch sites or airports and were not created solely for space tourism. Instead, they fill the role of "launch service providers" that send commercial and research satellites into orbit.

But they do have one thing New Mexico doesn't: a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spaceport license. The FAA oversees all U.S. commercial airline activity and added the Office of Commercial Space Activity in 1995. Spaceport America is in the process of obtaining this license, which entails a detailed review of policy, safety and environmental aspects involved with the proposed launch site.

The next U.S. commercial spaceport development likely will come from Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos. In 2005, Bezos purchased 165,000 acres of land in West Texas to begin testing a vertical launch space rocket called New Shepard with space vehicle company Blue Origin. Although Bezos has remained tight-lipped about the developments, a 2006 video of New Shepard's trial launch indicated that progress is certainly being made.

As the projected deadlines approach in the next few years for the completion of these new manned space rockets and spaceports, we'll have a better idea of whether dreams of space tourism will become a reality.

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