From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


Fields of Dreams

Will starry-eyed entrepreneurs transform today’s wide-open spaces into
tomorrow’s spaceports?

By Ed Regis

An epidemic is creeping across the face of the Earth, one that has
nothing to do with bird flu, West Nile, or any other microbe in the
news, but rather with a disorder that appears to affect the judgment
of those afflicted and magnify their ambitions. It’s a uniquely 21st
century technological manifestation known as…The Spaceport. Infected
with enthusiasm for the new businesses promising to launch masses of
humanity into space-Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for example,
has signed up as many as 1,000 passengers for an up-and-back trip-
people have suggested building spaceports in places like Upham, New
Mexico; Burns Flat, Oklahoma; Van Horn, Texas; Sheboygan, Wisconsin;
Columbus, Ohio; and in Singapore, Sweden, Nova Scotia, and Australia.
(For an interactive map, see above.)

The forces behind spaceport fever include national, state, and local
governments, crown princes, private investors, dot-com billionaires,
regular billionaires, aerospace engineers, test pilots, former
astronauts, rocket hobbyists, and space cadets of every stripe. All
seem to believe that spaceports will be the hot new industry, the next
biotech, a completely novel sector of commerce that will produce tall
geysers of cold cash and bring jobs, rocket paparazzi, and throngs of
deep-pocketed tourists, spectators, and assorted space-niks swarming
into the spaceport’s neighborhood. In a scrubby patch of southern New
Mexico, for example, a spaceport-Spaceport America-is poised to bring
economic salvation to a state that ranks 39th in gross state product.

“Potentially it’s 6,000 jobs,” said New Mexico governor (and now
presidential candidate) Bill Richardson last year. “The potential for
tourism, for jobs, for new technologies moving into New Mexico is

It was Richardson himself who was responsible for bringing Virgin
Galactic to the state as Spaceport America’s anchor tenant-a feat akin
to getting Microsoft to move to Santa Fe, perhaps, except for the
minor detail that Virgin Galactic had, at that point, no operational
spacecraft in the stable and wouldn’t for some time.

Jerry Larson, president of UP (pronounced up!) Aerospace, another
Spaceport America tenant, is also bullish on the spaceport’s future.
“There’s this huge market waiting there,” Larson told the Rocky
Mountain News last September. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry
waiting to be birthed.”

Space Pork

Admittedly, in the case of New Mexico’s spaceport, a few skeptics were
lurking in the wings, people whose somewhat more jaundiced visions
were not of spaceports but of space pork. In 2005, the New Mexico
legislature appropriated $100 million of the estimated $225 million
required for spaceport construction, but state senator John Grubesic
wasn’t having any of it. “This is your classic Old West story of your
snake-oil salesman who comes to the dying town promising to revitalize
it,” he said in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Unfortunately, people
have bought it, hook, line, and sinker.”

(The “dying town” in this case could well be Truth or Consequences
[née Hot Springs], about 30 miles west of the spaceport, population
7,289. That this gritty little village, composed mainly of gas
stations, Mexican restaurants, saloons, Mexican restaurants,
laundromats, and Mexican restaurants, could use some major
revitalization was beyond doubt.)

But for all the P.T. Barnum hucksterism around it, it’s not as if the
spaceport-to-riches scenario were built on nothing but dreams. On
October 4, 2004, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari
X Prize, thereby demonstrating that private companies could launch
humans into space. The week before the winning flight, Rutan and
Richard Branson announced a deal whereby Rutan would license the
SpaceShipOne technology to Branson for a new company, Virgin Galactic,
that would take paying passengers on flights into space-to an altitude
of 60 miles. A spate of other companies immediately announced similar
plans but without proven technology to back them up (see “Go
Ballistic!” Feb./Mar. 2006).

What did back them up was a market study, issued in October 2002 by
the Futron Corporation, a consulting firm located in Bethesda,
Maryland. In a 50-page report entitled “Space Tourism Market Study:
Suborbital Space Travel,” the company claimed to be providing an
objective assessment of an unknown and unproven market. Futron had
commissioned Zogby International, a polling firm, to survey 450 well-
off individuals in an effort to gauge their willingness to pay
handsome fees for a space experience. The survey considered factors
such as income levels, vacation and leisure spending, physical
fitness, perception of the riskiness of traveling into space,
willingness to undergo a week of training and to experience zero-G
flight, and so on. Zogby asked whether the chief appeal of a
spaceflight was the view of Earth from space, the acceleration of a
rocket launch, or something else. The company even fine-tuned the
results by adjusting for those whose desire to fly into space was tied
up with being a pioneer, one of the first to go.

The Futron study’s conclusion was that by 2021, some 15,700 passengers
would be flying into suborbital space per year, generating total
annual revenues of $786 million. A separate study of orbital flight
demand concluded that in the same time period, up to 60 passengers
would be spending $300 million per year, for total revenues of almost
$1.1 billion annually. That was not quite the “multibillion-dollar
industry” spaceport boosters had forecast, but still, it was big

But then last August 2006, Futron issued another report: “Suborbital
Space Tourism Demand Revisited.” The new study’s conclusion was
slightly sobering: Despite the fact that SpaceShipOne had won the X
Prize in the interim, the projected demand for such flights had
actually declined. The annual passenger load predicted by 2021 had
fallen from the original estimate of 15,700 to 13,000, while
anticipated revenues fell from $786 million to $676 million. The price
of a suborbital spaceflight, by contrast, had risen from the original
figure of $100,000 to $200,000, which happened to be exactly the sum
that Virgin Galactic was then quoting for a flight aboard

Futron theorized that the weakening of projected demand was due to two
main factors. One was the doubling of ticket prices; the other was
something that had plagued space ventures from the very beginning:
delays. The original 2002 study had assumed that commercial suborbital
flight would begin in 2006. But 2006 had come and had almost gone, and
not a single manned commercial flight had been made, nor had any of
the required space vehicles rolled out of the factory.

In the end, there was no getting around the fact that even though they
were based on polls and were the product of intelligent analysis, all
of these prophecies fell into the realm of sheer theory. What an
interviewee will say in a telephone call and what the same person
would actually do when faced with the real thing are two entirely
separate matters. The people involved were not spending any folding
money or putting their lives on the line; they were merely taking part
in a survey.

The glib auguries of a “multibillon-dollar industry,” therefore, were
pretty much wishful thinking based on guesswork, a phenomenon
otherwise known as hype. Sooner or later the reality of the situation
will have to be faced.

If we define a spaceport as a site dedicated to launching rockets that
can carry tourists into space for private profit, the blunt fact is:
There are no spaceports. There are military and federal rocket-launch
complexes that have been converted or expanded for commercial uses
(see “Payloads Other Than People,” p. 67). There is the Kodiak Launch
Complex in Alaska, which has the dual distinction of being the first
licensed launch site not co-located with a federal facility and the
first U.S. launch site built since the 1960s. But as for spaceports-as
defined, there are no such animals in the jungle.

The Oklahoma Spaceport, for example, is a former U.S. Air Force
facility (the Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base) that during the 1950s
was home to Strategic Air Command B-52s. Today the field consists of a
13,500-foot runway, a couple of abandoned-looking buildings, a control
tower, and the most crucial item of all, an on-site golf course.
(Didn’t Al Shepard hit a golf ball on the moon?) Rocketplane, the
Oklahoma City commercial spaceflight firm, was to be the anchor
tenant. But last June, when the Oklahoma Space Industry Development
Authority requested a $2 million appropriation for infrastructure
upgrades, the state legislature refused. (“We’re considering what to
do about that,” said a Rocketplane spokesperson last October.)

Spaceport Washington is an ember from the previous wildfire of space
optimism, ignited in 1996 by VentureStar, a proposed Lockheed Martin
launch vehicle that was to dramatically lower the cost of getting
stuff into orbit. The wedge-shaped, single-stage VentureStar was to
launch vertically from Edwards Air Force Base in California and land
horizontally, space shuttle-like, on a very long runway. Washington’s
Grant County International Airport with its 13,452-foot runway was one
of several western sites that fit the bill.

The cancellation of the VentureStar program in 2001 did not dampen the
state’s zeal nor that of Aero-Space Port International, a real estate
development group, for opening a spaceport in Washington. ASPI
corporate counsel Kim Foster says, “Because of our legacy with the
Boeing company, Washington state is proactive when it comes to space.”
Despite the airport’s wide-open spaces (a feature it shares with many
proposed spaceports), no company has indicated enough interest to get
the state to apply for a Federal Aviation Administration license to
operate a launch site.

One potential spaceport operator who has applied to the FAA is founder Jeff Bezos. His company Blue Origin launched a
rocket (which reached a height of 255 feet) from a site in west Texas
last November, but there’s no spaceport there yet.

Even the Mojave Spaceport (a.k.a. the Mojave Airport and Civilian
Aerospace Test Center), notwithstanding its having been the site of
the only successful manned private spaceflights in history, and having
been licensed in 2004 by the FAA as a spaceport, always had been, and
thereafter continued to function as, an airport, identified as MHV in
official FAA publications, Notices to Airmen, airport directories,
instrument approach and departure plates, navigational charts, and so

The fabled spaceports of Dubai, Singapore, and elsewhere exist
primarily in the form of Web sites and/or misty artist’s conceptions.

Against all this, the only launch site that has remotely approximated
the concept of an operational spaceport for private, as opposed to
government, launch vehicles and payloads was a tiny patch of concrete
in the New Mexico desert across the San Andres Mountains from the
White Sands Missile Range command center. Here, at Spaceport America,
on September 25, 2006, UP Aerospace (UPA), a private rocket company
based in Connecticut, attempted its first commercial launch. Because
Spaceport America does not yet have its spaceport license, UP
Aerospace obtained FAA approval to launch from temporary facilities.

The story began the night before, at the “Mission Safety Briefing”
held at the Hilton Las Cruces, which, even though it was some 100
miles from the launch site, was serving as UPA mission headquarters.
The mood was giddy. Not once at the safety briefing was the word
“safety” mentioned. Mostly, the event gave UPA the opportunity to
introduce its launch crew and allowed the company’s college, high
school, and elementary school clients to describe their science
payloads. Colleges in New Mexico, Connecticut, and Colorado were
flying experiment packages, such as a three-axis accelerometer, a
magnetometer, and a Geiger counter, among other things. Two fifth-
grade students, Alison and Lydia from Farnsworth Aerospace Elementary
School in St. Paul, Minnesota, had placed three wristwatches-two
analog and one digital-aboard to find out which type would better
survive microgravity, reentry, landing, and the 13 Gs of liftoff. In
all, there were about 40 payloads inside the SpaceLoft XL-1 rocket, a
20-foot-long, 10-inch-wide craft that would be shot into the blue the
following day.

Next morning, members of the media, UPA clients, and guests left the
hotel at about 3:30 a.m. for the 100-mile drive to the VIP viewing
area, which was about three miles from the launch site. The site
itself consisted of little more than a concrete launch pad, the
launcher rail (called “T Rex”), and a couple of modular structures
functioning as the vehicle’s final assembly building and the launch
control center.

Arriving at the viewing area in temperatures just above freezing,
launch-goers could see faint traces of dawn behind the San Andres
range to the east. Launch time was set for 7:30 a.m. Well before then,
Rick Homans, New Mexico’s state secretary for economic development who
was acting as master of ceremonies, announced over the PA system that
the rocket’s transponder wasn’t working. The transponder was essential
for recovering the payload: The vehicle had no guidance system; the
rocket, aimed a few degrees from vertical, would be launched
ballistically, like a cannonball. The plan was for the rocket to reach
Mach 5 in 13 seconds, then coast to its target altitude of 70 miles.
At that point, the nosecone would separate from the body of the
rocket, parachutes would deploy, and both sections would come down
gently within a 20-mile-wide area somewhere in the White Sands Missile
Range, which would track the thing by radar. The entire flight was to
take approximately 13 minutes. However, fixing the transponder
required the removal and replacement of 72 bolts.

Hours later the transponder is working. During the delay, UPA’s
commercial clients take the chance to describe their payloads. A Las
Cruces company, Heavenly Journeys, is flying the ashes of a
veterinarian whose widow is attending the launch. Another firm is
flying ingredients for an energy drink. There are other oddments-a
plastic bag of 12 Cheerios, for one-all tucked away inside pizza-
shaped payload containers.

As the final countdown nears, launch time shifts back and forth from
2:05 to 2:15 with no explanation. Reuters is here, ABC, Fox News,
National Public Radio, Associated Press, a French film crew, local
reporters-there’s probably more media here than customers-millions of
cameras on tripods to record the flight that is to inaugurate the
revolutionary, paradigm-shifting, historic era of public access to

At last the rocket gets away. Watching it is a thrilling experience: a
point of dazzling white light followed by a contrail straight as a
knife edge and as bright as if it were illuminated from the inside.
Then, suddenly, the contrail becomes a corkscrew, and I’m immediately
reminded of the Challenger disaster. In a few more seconds, although
everybody is still looking skyward at the twisting track of rocket
exhaust, it’s announced over the PA system that, barely three minutes
into the flight, the rocket is back on the ground.

Back on the ground?

An Associated Press story filed five days later described the
SpaceLoft XL rocket as “the first launched from a commercial spaceport
in New Mexico-and the first to crash.” That was not in the least
surprising. At the post-flight briefing, held the same night back at
the Hilton, Lonnie Sumpter, executive director of the New Mexico
Spaceport Authority, who had also acted as the flight’s launch
director, said: “Forty-six percent of first launches suffer a

Sumpter, who died in February after a brief illness, was a commanding
presence. A mechanical engineer who had spent 16 years at White Sands
flight testing missile systems, he knew whereof he spoke. Still, a 46
percent failure rate was scarcely a comforting thought in view of the
question on some people’s minds, namely: What if this had been a
manned flight?

The crash of the UPA rocket was a cautionary tale. It is wrong to
think that rocket flight is like aircraft flight, only a little higher
and a little faster. Unlike atmospheric aircraft, a spacefaring rocket
undergoes extremes of acceleration and deceleration, plus vibration
and buffeting, reentry heat, and other space-specific influences. All
these factors combine to make spaceflight a classic case of “sensitive
dependence upon initial conditions,” meaning that the smallest
mechanical, software, or other imperfection-such as the brittle O-ring
that doomed Challenger -can have momentous outcomes.

Such a defect was catastrophic to UPA’s SpaceLoft XL-1 and to most of
its scientific payloads. The University of Colorado’s electronics
package had been reduced to a charred, deformed, and melted husk.
Central Connecticut State University’s package, broken into pieces,
had returned no data. Alison and Lydia’s analog watches, despite
having been carefully encased in bubble wrap, had stopped at 2:17. The
digital watch was defunct, its face blank.

In January 2007, the company announced that the crash had been caused
by a defective tailfin assembly, which engineers have since
redesigned. And there was a silver lining: Worldwide coverage of the
first launch had produced so much publicity that UPA’s next two
flights were fully booked.

UP Aerospace will not make or break the New Mexico spaceport; Virgin
Galactic will do that. But in the aftermath of the UPA crash, some of
the major players in space tourism were taking a second look at how
the crash (or a series of crashes) of a manned private rocket, plus a
raft of huge liability claims, would affect the industry. Last
October, some of the high priests of space tourism met in Las Cruces
for the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight., which covered the meeting, reported a few of their

“Space is risky, and safety will be one of the defining factors in the
development of space tourism for the first few years,” said Eric
Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures, the Arlington,
Virginia firm that has arranged five visits to the International Space
Station for wealthy clients, including the latest, Charles Simonyi,
the creator of Microsoft Word.

“No matter how much energy we put into safety, there is a chance of an
accident,” said Alex Tai, chief operating officer of Virgin Galactic.

“What happens if someone in the industry crashes and burns? It could
affect everyone,” said Kirby Ikin, of Asia Pacific Aerospace

Even Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, said that he
would decline the offer of a private rocket flight. “I don’t need that
publicity anymore and I don’t need that risk.”

And who could blame him? Accidents have eliminated not only individual
aircraft types-such as the de Havilland Comet, three of which broke up
in the air between May 1953 and April 1954-but entire modes of
transportation. The Hindenberg disaster of 1937 ended travel by
Zeppelin, and the crash of the Concorde in 2000 effectively terminated
journeys by supersonic transport. The up-and-down flight planned by
Virgin Galactic-a voyage from nowhere to nowhere and back again-does
not even have the advantage of being a mode of transportation: It is,
merely, entertainment. That may be the saving grace.

In the end, whether spaceports will be a bubble or a business will be
determined by the reliability of the spacecraft involved and by the
space tourists’ ability to tolerate risk. Plenty of people engage in
dangerous sports such as mountain climbing, untethered rock climbing,
and BASE jumping, an extreme hobby in which a person jumps from a
Building, Antenna, Span (such as a bridge), or point of Earth (such as
a cliff), and opens a parachute on the way down. BASE jumping has had
its share of fatalities (the latest occurred last October, when an
experienced BASE jumper died moments after leaping from New River
Gorge Bridge in West Virginia), but the sport, and the deaths,
continue. Maybe the same will hold true of private manned rocket

So are spaceports the wave of the future, the next big growth
industry? The only safe, sane, and sensible answer is: Nobody knows.
As physicist Niels Bohr used to say: “Prediction is very difficult,
especially about the future.”


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