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The Future of Spaceports

Published by spacecowboy on Fri Jan 27, 2006 4:47 am
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By Klaus Schmidt, reviewed by Stephen Deisher and Angelina Richardson; The Space Fellowship.

With private spaceflight coming ever closer to reality, government-owned launch ranges are now faced with a new question: how to cope with the potential for privatized human spaceflight. Since the beginning of rocketry as a science, it has traditionally been controlled by the military, meaning that much of it has also been classified, and many launch ranges are located in either secure areas or military bases. This is exemplified in the way SpaceX was delayed from launching its Falcon I from Vandenberg AFB due to overflight concerns with a National Reconnaissance Office satellite downrange from it (Read SpaceX: The Countdown Begins for more details). The public has rarely been welcome on a launch range, and they’re usually not exactly visitor-friendly places.

Naturally, this does not concern the two completely private spaceports: Mojave (which proudly claimed the title of first civilian spaceport after the three SpaceShipOne flights), and New Mexico’s Southwest Regional Spaceport. Of course, there is still not too much to see outside of Upham, NM… “Yet,” as the New Mexico Economic Development Department would say. Until the SRS gets built, the launch complexes already in existence will just have to suffice. Of those, some are actually owned by private companies, and the rest are owned by one government agency or another — be it NASA, ESA, JAXA, Roskosmos, or any of the dozens of missile-capable military forces out there.

NASA has been notoriously unfriendly towards private space ventures, loosening up only recently under the administration of Mike Griffin — and even now, they’ve only changed their tack by a little, offering competitions and opening up contracts to small companies. NASA has historically been unsupportive of putting civilians in space, as evidenced by their hesitance to allow Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth aboard the ISS. But then again, they also just recently agreed to let Rocketplane Limited, Inc. have a Rocketdyne RS-88 rocket engine on a three-year loan.

Another sign that NASA is ready to start sharing its sandbox is the new plan for the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer to take off from Kennedy Space Center on its planned 26,000 mile (42.000 kilometer), 80 hour, record-setting flight. Having taken the GlobalFlyer around the world once already, Steve Fossett is ready to beat his own record, with the engineering expertise of Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites (the same so-called “band of renegade engineers” that built SpaceShipOne), the financial backing of Sir Richard Branson, and now the use of the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility — a runway over 15,000 feet (4.500 meters) long. This new agreement is part of a pilot program to expand access to the runway for non-NASA activities. The executive director of the Florida Space Authority, Winston Scott, says the new direction is “symbolizing a whole new way of doing business. The whole project is exciting. We want to do our best to assist the team.”

An arrangement between government-operated launch ranges and aerospace research and commercial spaceflight companies would be beneficial to both. This would allow the private companies to worry more about developing their vehicle instead of finding a suitable testing site and help the government to diffuse the cost of operating such a large and expensive facility. Such a policy would also free up money for other uses, such as furthering the Vision for Space Exploration, or reversing the much-lamented disappearance of aeronautics research projects.

This marriage between private companies and government space agencies could potentially open a new chapter in space exploration, and Kennedy Space Center, the home of the greatest human achievement so far, is the best possible place to start writing it.

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