29 August 2005
- General (Good)
Final Destination
Spaceports are key to space tourism
by G B Leatherwood
by G.B. Leatherwood

Three things are necessary for space travel:

1) Reliable, reusable, economical vehicles,
2) A destination, and
3) Facilities from which to launch and land humans.

Toward that end, we have:

1) Two vehicles--the Russian Soyuz and the US Space Shuttle--neither of which is economical. Soyuz is reliable, and the Shuttle’s reliability continues to rely on factors other than the vehicle itself. Both are reusable but only after months of rehabilitation after each flight.

2) One habitat: the International Space Station, currently occupied by only two astronauts who have to spend most of their time maintaining their house, not doing the scientific work for which the ISS was designed and sold.

3) Three facilities: NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in the US, and the Russian sites at Baikonur and Plesetsk.

Notice that all of the above are government operations. All of the vehicles, all of the facilities, and the only habitat. But this may not be the case for long.

The success of Mojave Aerospace Ventures in capturing the Ansari X-Prize with Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne and the succeeding contracts with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic opened the door to privately owned and operated vehicle operations with as many as six other companies vigorously proceeding toward commercial operation within the next few years.

Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow continues his progress to develop, build, test, and install a hotel orbiting the Earth and eventually habitats circling the moon.

Space Adventures, the company that brokered the space flights of Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth is now promoting tourist flights that will orbit the moon; not touching down, but offering sights so far seen only by US astronauts.

Progress, progress, and … more progress.

But how about the third critical factor—spaceports? Let’s be clear about the difference between the many launch sites that are now in almost daily operation in many countries, and “spaceports.” The “launch sites” do only one thing—launch vehicles carrying various payloads; not humans. The vehicles are not reusable; they don’t come back—at least not on purpose. Even at that, accidents are rare and the launches are so successful that most do not even get media coverage.

A “spaceport,” on the other hand, is a facility that can handle both launch and landing of human-carrying vehicles. A true spaceport will be much like the familiar airports now handling millions of passengers, their baggage, and freight. Fuel storage and transfer stations, servicing and repair facilities, passenger terminals with all the amenities of food service, shops and stores, VIP lounges, and so on.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has licensed five spaceports in the United States: California Spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Spaceport Florida at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Virginia Space Flight Center at Wallops Island, Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, and Mojave Airport in California. These are now in operation and preparing for human journeys.

The latest addition in the US is to be the Southwest Regional Spaceport, located near Upham, NM, about 45 miles north of Las Cruces and 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences. Now just desert, plans are already well underway for acquisition and preparation of about 27 square miles of property.

In his article on spaceports, Space.com Senior Science Writer Leonard David describes the first official meeting of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority last week to begin work establishing the Southwest Regional Spaceport. This is to be a major departure site for commercial space launches, including passenger-carrying rockets.

According to David, Rick Homans, Spaceport Authority Chairman and New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary, said “It’s a big step forward.” Homans said further that the first task of the newly formed New Mexico Spaceport Authority is to go through the environmental impact process—an effort that is to start moving forward within the next 30 days. “It’s a clean canvas,” he said, “We can create it from scratch.”

The best part is that significant progress is being made in the third area that will get us across the border into the next frontier.
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G B Leatherwood 29 August 2005
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