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Gateway to Space

Gateway to SpaceTouch down on the runway. Look out the window.

All of the basic elements are in place: hangar, terminal, lounge, a long stretch of tarmac. Except, your flight isn't a red-eye from Los Angeles; you've just returned from space

Superficially, the launch and landing sites for commercial space vehicles look a lot like their airport cousins. Yet, because they must handle the explosive energy of rocket-powered ships — packed with the equivalent of 30 to 125 tons of TNT — important differences lie just beneath the surface.

The infrastructures of these gateways to space are designed to support vehicles that escape earth on a regular (and soon-to-be daily) basis. They are intended to service spacecraft made by a variety of entrepreneurial launch companies, each of which is creating a ship with its own unique design.

The technology in these vehicles is revolutionary. Unlike traditional federal or military vehicles, newer commercial vessels are more likely to be reusable and take off on a runway instead of a rocket pad. Many of those intended for space tourism, ascending to just past earth's atmosphere instead of into orbit, are also much smaller.

These features might demand sites with the flexibility to maintain runways and vertical launch pads, access to different fuels, and the facilities to provide training and entertainment activities. Accordingly, to ensure the lowest cost and best schedules, spaceports have already begun to specialize.

However, before any countdowns begin, each site must be approved for an FAA license by the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Today there are seven licensed spaceports in the United States, with as many as four more expected in the next couple of years.


Spaceport licenses have been granted to three inland sites, near Las Cruces, N.M., Mojave, Calif., and Burns Flat, Okla. So far, companies have largely chosen to fly new vehicles from these privately developed spaceports. SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize space competition when it launched from Mojave, while Virgin Galactic plans launches from Mojave and Spaceport America — the groundbreaking took place last week — in New Mexico.

When a spaceport license application is considered, the FAA assesses the risk to nearby people and the environment. Launch sites for more conventional vehicles carrying satellites or science experiments usually exist only on the coastline for safety and logistical reasons. Traditional designs that require expendable parts to be jettisoned after launch require a vacant disposal area: the ocean.

"You launch from the coast for a reason," says Al Wassel, a FAA program manager stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. "It makes things easier when you're talking about public safety."

Mojave Air and Space Port in California was the
first inland launch site licensed by the FAA in
2004. Image courtesy of Mojave Air and Space

Wassel, along with aerospace engineer Pam Underwood, are the only employees with the Office of Commercial Space located outside of FAA Headquarters. Along with the Air Force, they help oversee commercial operations at Patrick. They've observed four launches in March alone, including one by the soon-to-be-retired NASA space shuttle. All involved had expendable components.

Times are changing.

Now that private companies making spacefaring ships use largely reusable parts, dry land is often more convenient, available, and easier to recover equipment. For entrepreneurs focused on space tourism, the location of the launch site is less important than support through financial incentives by state and local governments.

“Two things influence launch companies: physics and policy. The two P's,” says Mark Bontrager, vice president of spaceport operations for state-sponsored Space Florida, which is pursuing a spaceport license for two sites. “Commercial industry looks at these two elements and makes the decision about where they want to go.”

Bontrager can't control the physics of takeoffs from Cape Canaveral. But he said Space Florida does work to build a business-friendly policy environment for operators. “I believe that to some degree it's our job as the state to make it easy, fast, and secure to operate on the eastern range,” he said.

Although commercial space flight is still in its infancy compared to the 70-plus-year-old commercial aviation industry, regulatory lessons learned from airports have proven to be valuable. Indeed, compared with the very early days of airports, when there were no paved runways and no regulatory regime to ensure the public's safety, the evolution of spaceports has gone much more smoothly.

"Spaceport developers have guidelines and procedures to help shape their course, something airports at the outset didn't have," Wassel said.

Spaceport America design concept. The groundbreaking
for the New Mexico facility took place last week.
Image courtesy of Spaceport America

While the Office of Commercial Space Transportation has had the benefit of history's lessons, it still must balance safety regulation with flexibility. Part of the challenge is to allow companies the freedom to grow and experiment within a set of safety parameters.

The FAA also aims to avoid the role of umpire or referee: regulators simply work to ensure a level playing field, and strive not to “pick winners” from among competing companies.

"The industry as a whole talks together," said Stacey Zee, environmental specialist with the FAA space systems development division. "They have a vested interest in having the business succeed."

The benefits of a local spaceport would likely include new jobs with good pay, educational opportunities, and a chance to join a new transportation network. Space travel is not yet recognized as a mode of transportation, but government and industry leaders expect it to be when spacecraft begin to land at spaceports other than the one from which they launched. Business travelers: think New York to Sydney in 45 minutes.

More than 20,000 airports now exist to support the national airspace. If spaceports develop along a similar arc, the spaceport industry will be a lucrative one.

Read part four, Rocket to Space

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