Headlines > News > Path to the final frontier may lead through Burns Flat

Path to the final frontier may lead through Burns Flat

Published by Robin on Mon Oct 25, 2004 4:10 am
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By Tom Lindley, The Oklahoman Sun October 24, 2004

BURNS FLAT, OKLAHOMA – The commercial race for space is taking a curious turn through an out-of-the-way place.

A new company, Rocketplane Ltd. Inc., has been bankrolled with $17.9 million in Oklahoma tax credits and within three years is expected to be poised for takeoff on a runway so long and wide it could only have been built to reassert the claim that the world is flat.

For a few pennies short of $100,000 per passenger, space tourists will roar down 13,503 feet of concrete in a custom-crafted, reusable horizontal-launch vehicle.

At about 30,000 feet, twin rockets will ignite and propel the crew and two passengers at Mach 3.5 speed to a 70-degree climb up and over a parabola that marks the threshold of space.

Then, gravity will bring everyone gently back to earth at the suborbital spaceport in Burns Flat.

Rocketplane’s program manager, David Urie, sees no reason why all of this will not unfold on a schedule that calls for the launch vehicles to be designed and manufactured in Oklahoma City and Guthrie. Operations are expected to shift to Burns Flat when testing gets under way by the fall of 2006.

By 2007, the business plan calls for Rocketplane to operate two flights a week, 50 weeks a year, with the potential to increase the number of vehicles it operates if demand grows.

“We have big plans for out here,” Urie said. “This is kind of a neglected frontier. It won’t be as big as commercial aviation, but it will be a substantial industry.”

Coming attractions
Oct. 4, the world got a preview of what is to come when more than 20,000 people flocked to a California desert to see SpaceShipOne become the first private manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of more than 68 miles for the second time in a 14-day period, earning it the coveted $10 million Ansari X Prize.

“It just brought tears to my eyes — it was so unbelievable,” said state Rep. Jack Bonny, D-Burns Flat, who was among those who attended the vertical launch. “I’ve dreamed of this all my life.”

When opposition to the tax credits was raised in the state legislature, Bonny said a lawmaker questioned why anyone would want to build and fly a rocket plane in Oklahoma when they could do it in California or Seattle or anywhere else, for that matter.

It’s possible lawmakers still were airsick after having seen the $26.9 million in tax credits awarded to Great Plains Airlines basically go for naught.

Ups and downs
But no one should be surprised that the mystery of space is somehow connected to Burns Flats, where there is as much mystery in the air as there is blue sky.

It dates to 1942, when farmers wondered why in the world the Navy would want to set up operations in the middle of the plains. The Navy, as it turned out, was looking for a flat place, not a wet place, to train pilots.

Then, when the Strategic Air Command expanded Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base at the height of the Cold War and brought B-52’s and nuclear bombs to town, the whole world wondered what would happen if those bombs ever had to be dropped.

The latest question that has people scratching their heads is whether the Oklahoma spaceport will be among a select few that cashes in on the public’s desire to go weightless.

“I don’t even like to go up in an elevator, much less space,” longtime Burns Flat resident T.G. “Junior” Walters said when asked whether he is saving money for a ride. “But if it would help bring in people and trade, isn’t that what a community needs to exist on?”

Walters is like most area residents, who have seen planes and oil and gas drilling rigs come and go.

Don Greteman was in the eighth grade when the Air Force expanded the old Clinton Naval Air Station into a 3,000-acre SAC base. He saw school enrollment jump from 200 to almost 2,000 overnight as a 900-unit housing complex was built next to the base for personnel and their families.

He saw it go back down to 200 when the SAC base closed, only to see it quadruple in size again when oil was struck in the ’80s.

“I’m optimistic about the future, but that’s probably why people are saying when it happens, we’ll believe it,” Greteman said, “it” being the town’s rendezvous with space.

Runway to heaven
It’s had its ups and downs, but Burns Flat also has the one thing aviators want most, a runway that’s hard to miss.

Counting the approaches, the runway is three miles long, 300 feet wide and 18 inches thick. The flight line ramp that runs beside it is nearly a mile long and features 96 acres of concrete.

Clinton-Sherman Air Park manager Mark McAtee estimated it would cost $1 billion to duplicate today.

Rocketplane was drawn to Oklahoma by that runway and the promise of tax credits. State officials say they were drawn to Rocketplane because of the company’s $30 million investment pledge, its $10 million equity capitalization commitment and its list of high flyers in the board room and on the design team.

In Urie’s view, space tourism is only the beginning.

Speculation now centers on horizontal launch vehicles that could send small and medium-sized satellites to space and perform scientific experiments and improve worldwide telecommunications.

Urie politely declined to be more specific about Rocketplane’s vision of the future, saying only that “we have other dreams beyond that.”

It appears the skies over Burns Flat are as mysterious as ever.

Write me: P.O. Box 25125, Oklahoma City, OK 73125.
Fax me: 475-3183
Call me: (405) 936-0175.
E-mail me: tlindley@cox.net

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