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.