The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Cecil Field photo
Cecil Field, seen here in a Google Earth image, has runways and other infrastructure needed for spaceflight, and now has a license; it’s still looking for customers, though.

The spaceport glut

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Last week the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation awarded to Florida’s Jacksonville Aviation Authority (JAA) a launch site operator license (more commonly known as a spaceport license) for Cecil Field. The site, located on the western outskirts of Jacksonville, is a former naval air station that features four runways, one of which is 3,800 meters long. Used today primarily for cargo and other non-passenger air transportation services, airport officials and commercial space advocates in the state think it could be an ideal site for hosting suborbital space tourism flights.

There was just one problem with the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the Cecil Field’s spaceport license: the facility doesn’t have any customers lined up.

The announcement generated a lot of local fanfare, and even a visit later in the week by Florida Governor Charlie Crist. “It’s a wonderful accomplishment to have the opportunity to get into the commercial space industry and do it right here from the First Coast,” Crist said, as reported by the local newspaper The Daily Record. Other local officials played up the economic benefits of hosting wealthy space tourists and using that as a springboard to other markets, such as launching satellites.

There was just one problem with the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the Cecil Field’s spaceport license: the facility doesn’t have any customers lined up. An airport official, Todd Lindner, told Reuters that the JAA is working with “several potential customers”, but declined to name them. This is indicative of a larger situation in the emerging suborbital spaceflight market: there are today more potential spaceports than there are potential customers for them.

Cecil Field’s challenge in attracting customers is exacerbated by the terms of its license. The facility is licensed only for horizontally-launched vehicles, so those that take off vertically—like those under development by Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, and Masten Space Systems—can’t fly from there. In addition, the license only covers those vehicles that take off under jet power, so a vehicle that takes off under rocket power, like XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx, can’t fly from Cecil either. This effectively limits the spaceport to two companies: Virgin Galactic and Rocketplane Global. Virgin, though, is the anchor tenant of Spaceport America in New Mexico and hasn’t shown much interest yet in flying from Cecil Field. Rocketplane, meanwhile, has suffered financial difficulties that have suspended development of their XP vehicle indefinitely.

That has not stopped state officials, though, from seeking to develop additional spaceports within Florida. Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, praised the award of Cecil Field’s spaceport license in a statement last week, calling it “the beginning of a horizontal space launch network in Florida.” In addition to Cecil Field, Space Florida is looking at the Kennedy Space Center, whose long runway will no longer be needed for its primary purpose once the shuttle is retired in the next year. Also under study is the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport, a little-known airport in the southern Everglades west of Miami. That site features a single 3,200-meter runway, the stub of a planned giant commercial airport, Everglades Jetport, canceled 40 years ago because of environmental concerns.

Space Florida president Frank DiBellocalled Cecil Field’s license “the beginning of a horizontal space launch network in Florida.”

There is also continued interest in spaceports elsewhere in the US, from Hawaii to Wisconsun, primarily by taking advantage of existing airports. The most recent—and possibly the most unlikely—entrant is Indiana. Legislation introduced into the state’s House of Representatives this month would confer spaceport status on two small airports in the state: Columbus Municipal Airport, south of Indianapolis, would be the state’s “primary” spaceport, while Anderson Municipal Airport, northeast of Indianapolis, would be the “secondary” spaceport. The legislation would also provide tax incentives for companies involved in space transportation technology and require the state’s transportation department to develop policies to encourage research and development in the field.

There is strong interest in such spaceports outside the US as well. The best-known example is Spaceport Sweden, which plans to make use of the airport in the northern Swedish town of Kiruna, as well as the nearby Esrange Space Center, to support suborbital spaceflights. The project already has an initial agreement with Virgin Galactic to host SpaceShipTwo flights, and as of last fall its partners had invested $2 million of a planned total of $25 million into the project.

Sweden, though, is just one of many countries pursuing spaceports. In recent years proposals, of varying degrees of maturity and support, have been floated by sites in Japan, Scotland, Singapore, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. Last month, South Korea entered the picture with plans by the Yecheon Astro Space Center to host operations of XCOR’s Lynx vehicle.

The rate of spaceport development, by all appearances, is outracing the development of the vehicles that could fly from them. This raises a question: is this oversupply of spaceports a bad thing? Is the industry hurt in some way if there are too many spaceports competing for a limited number of vehicles?

In many respects, the answer is no. Having a wide range of spaceports to choose from can be beneficial to vehicle operators, who can use that competition to win concessions from spaceports and local governments to get their business. As the industry matures, having a large number of spaceports to choose from can also support vehicle operators, allowing them to get closer to potential customers and offer a wider range of services and experiences to them.

An Oklahoma state legislator plans to subjct the budget of OSIDA, which runs the Oklahoma Spaceport, to “intense scrutiny” because of a lack of space business there.

If there is a problem, it comes from the danger of spaceport proponents overselling the benefits that they can provide. Spaceports are often sold as magnets for high-technology businesses and jobs, attracting a billion-dollar industry to a state or region. This looks particularly enticing during a steep recession, and more so for places like Florida that look with increasing trepidation at the effects the space shuttle’s retirement will have on the local economy. Yet there’s no way every spaceport can grab a majority stake in this market, nor a guarantee that any spaceport will be successful, given the uncertainties surrounding a nascent industry such as commercial suborbital spaceflight. While expensive custom-built spaceports like Spaceport America are the exception rather than the rule, even existing airports may require millions of dollars of investment to develop the infrastructure needed for suborbital vehicles, as well as market themselves to potential users; investments that may not be recouped if the spaceport—or the industry overall—fails to gain traction.

In that respect, the status of the Oklahoma Spaceport offers a cautionary tale. A decade ago the state sought to lure companies to a former air force base in the western part of the state whose major asset was a 4,100-meter runway (see “Little spaceport on the prairie”, The Space Review, June 7, 2004). By 2004 Rocketplane Ltd. had moved to the state with plans to fly its XP suborbital spaceplane from the spaceport.

Now, however, Rocketplane Global (as the company is now known) has gone into stasis, suspending its vehicle development indefinitely because of financial problems. Oklahoma officials appear to have all but written off the company as an eventual user of the spaceport. “It’s basically old news,” Bill Khourie, executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority (OSIDA), told The Oklahoman in a video accompanying an article published SundayM. “Rocketplane’s not around any longer.”

The state, while hoping to attract Armadillo Aerospace or XCOR Aerospace to the spaceport, is looking at more down-to-earth options for use of the spaceport. That includes aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul work as well as trying to get cargo companies like FedEx and UPS to make use of the airport. At the same time, its future as a spaceport may be in jeopardy: one state legislator who has previously been critical of the tax credits given to Rocketplane hinted that OSIDA’s budget—just under half a million dollars—could be subject to “intense scrutiny” as the state, like many others in the US, grapples with a fiscal crisis.

In a report by an Indianapolis TV station about Indiana’s spaceport plans, Brian Tanner, director of Space Port Indiana, a company planning to establish spaceflight operations from the state, claims that “it’s a near certainty that Indiana will become a hub for space research”. However, in the emerging commercial spaceflight industry, there’s little that could be classified as a “near certainty” at this stage. Just ask Oklahoma.