How Spaceports Will Work

SpaceShipOne, which won the X Prize in 2004, may be the future of commercial space flight. See more rocket pictures.
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Forget secluded Bahamian islands and Swiss Alps chateaus. For the hottest, most exclusive vacation destination, look up. Although the space tourism industry is still getting off the ground, people are talking it up like it's the new Las Vegas.

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Discussed in more detail in How Virgin Galactic Works, people have already booked the first 100 flights with Virgin Galactic, the space tourism business of mogul Richard Branson. Branson's company is just one in a fast-growing cluster of space tourism-oriented businesses that have popped up in the new millennium. Space Adventures, Rocketplane Global, Blue Origin and others have also been testing and refining reusable launch vehicles (RLV) that would shoot amateur astronauts into suborbital regions of space to allow them to experience weightlessness briefly.

But you can't just shoot an RLV into the sky from an ordinary airport. Since the skies buzz with thousands of airplanes en route at any given time, these RLVs need their own spaceports.

What happens at this newest type of transportation station? Find out on the next page.


Spaceport Basics

Notice the runways leading up to a launch pad at a spaceport. Spaceports are similar in concept and design to airports.
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Spaceports are basically airports for space vehicles. The United States already has a handful of them, most notably the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In Virginia, NASA partners with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Along with two wholly commercial spaceports in Mojave, Calif. and Kodiak, Alaska, these spaceports serve as research and testing hubs that launch rockets and space shuttles. Most often, the rockets' freight, or payload, consists of satellites and scientific research equipment rather than people.

Spaceports being developed specifically for RLVs and space tourism will focus on space travel for profit rather than research. Overall, spaceports don't differ tremendously from airports. Both use hangars, maintenance areas, terminals and runways to get manmade birds into flight. However for horizontal rocket plane takeoffs, spaceports require more barren swaths of land with clear weather and room for extra long runways that outstretch airport's runways by around 3,000 feet (914 meters).


For an idea of the basic operational aspects of a spaceport, we can look at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Although these will vary depending on the focus of the spaceport, here are some general functions:

  • Payload processing: prepares everything that goes into the space vehicle
  • Launch/Departure: ensures launch safety
  • Landing and recovery: gets the vehicle back to the ground safely
  • Traffic and flight control: monitors space vehicle en route
  • Support services: spaceport security, medical teams, maintenance

[source: Kennedy Space Center]

What's the payoff for these futuristic centers? One 2006 economic impact study of suborbital space tourism found a potential $676 million annual industry revenue [source: Regis]. Consequently, locations in the United States and abroad are jumping at the opportunity to build one of the first commercial spaceports meant for space tourism. We'll take a closer look at some of these future spaceports on the next page. ­


Spaceports of Today and Tomorrow

SpaceShipOne coming down for a landing at the Mojave Airport and Spaceport.
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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.
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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 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.

To learn more about space travel, blast on to the next page.


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  • Goddard, Jacqui. "Up, Up and Ka-Ching!" Newsweek. Feb. 11, 2008. (May 8, 2008)
  • Kennedy Space Center. "Understanding Spaceport Functions." Advance Spaceport Technology Working Group. (May 13, 2008)
  • Madrid, Allan and Hastings, Michael. "The New Space Race." Newsweek. Sept. 18, 2006. (May 8, 2008)
  • Regis, Ed. "Field of Dreams." Air & Space. April/May 2007. (May 8, 2008)
  • Silverman, Jacob. "From Nowhere to Out There." Wired Magazine. Aug. 10, 2006. (May 8, 2008)
  • Stroh, Michael. "Up and Away." Popular Science. April 2007. (May 8, 2008)
  • Thomas, Catherine Booth. "The Space Cowboys." TIME Magazine. Feb. 22, 2007. (May 8, 2008),8816,1592834,00.html#
  • US Fed News Service. "Gov. Richardson, NASA Administrator Agree Commercial Spaceports Can Fill Vital US Need in Space." April 2, 2008.