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Review: Spaceport Earth

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Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight
by Joe Pappalardo
Overlook Press, 2017
hardcover, 256 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-4683-1278-2

Rarely does a month go by without another announcement of plans for yet another commercial spaceport. January has already checked that box: last week came word that that the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission in Mississippi had awarded a contract for a feasibility study about conducting launches from Stennis International Airport, a general aviation airport located near NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

“After the last Space Shuttle launch, I decided to put myself on the spaceport beat,” Pappalardo said.

“We have Lockheed Martin right here at Stennis Space Center that actually makes satellites that go into orbit,” Janel Carothers, chief development officer of the commission, told a local television station. “Things like Sirius Radio gets made right here at Stennis Space Center and put into orbit in other places.” (Lockheed Martin makes only satellite components, like propulsion systems, at Stennis, and SiriusXM buys its satellites from major manufacturers, like California-based Space Systems Loral.)

It’s not clear why a company would want to launch from that airport, beyond the proximity to a NASA facility best known for testing rocket engines; any launches from there would likely be limited to a narrow range of azimuths to avoid overflying Biloxi to the east or New Orleans to the west. But it’s not alone in its optimism: the FAA has licensed ten commercial launch sites to date, several of which have yet to perform a launch, with more in various stages of the licensing process. There’s also been a surge of interest in spaceports in the United Kingdom, with proposals from Wales to the Outer Hebrides.

Spaceport Earth offers a guide to some of these existing and proposed spaceports. Joe Pappalardo, a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics, takes the reader on a tour of these facilities, and the advances and setbacks they’ve faced. It’s a good introduction for those new to the field, but it’s also a fine read for those familiar with the commercial spaceflight industry.

The book is something of a travelogue, starting at the Kennedy Space Center, which Pappalardo visits in 2011 to witness the final space shuttle launch—and, for him, the first launch he’s seen in person. “After the last Space Shuttle launch, I decided to put myself on the spaceport beat,” he said, citing the growth of commercial space efforts and the “industrial battle for satellite launches” between entrenched incumbents like Arianespace and United Launch Alliance and emerging ventures like SpaceX.

The book has a geographical, versus a chronological, organization, with chapters devoted to the various spaceports he visits. He goes to French Guiana to witness an Ariane 5 launch, and tour the jungle with the French Foreign Legion forces that guard the spaceport. He goes to familiar destinations on the NewSpace beat, like Mojave in California and Spaceport America in New Mexico, and also Wallops in Virginia. There are some less familiar locations as well, like Waco, Texas, where the operators of an airport attached to a local college are seeking a spaceport license because, well, why not?

“The truth is that there is a global boom in spaceports, but most of them will never see an actual launch,” he writes in the book’s opening chapter.

Pappalardo has an eye for local color that shines in the book as he describes the places that have or are seeking spaceports and the people who live there. An example is where he describes Van Horn, Texas, the town nearest Blue Origin’s private launch facility, where the company has put the town on the map “for the first time since 1910, when Robert Espy set the world record for roping and tying a goat here. (It took eleven seconds.)” It makes up for the occasional errors in the book, such as referring on a couple occasions to the Atlas V launch pad at Cape Canaveral as “SLS-41” rather than “SLC-41” or the speed at which the first SpaceShipTwo unlocked its feathering system on its fatal October 2014 crash as “Mach .09,” a speed so slow that stalling, rather than aerodynamic breakup, would be the biggest concern.

He acknowledges in the book that the boom in spaceports is likely to lead to disappointment for many, as is already the case. “The truth is that there is a global boom in spaceports, but most of them will never see an actual launch,” he writes in the book’s opening chapter. He argues that some local officials are not dissuaded by those odds and seek to use “the spaceport label to create nodes of aerospace science that could help provide aerospace jobs.”

Readers of Spaceport Earth will get a good flavor of the development of spaceports and the rise of a commercial launch industry, even if they may still be puzzled why so many commercial spaceports are being developed for vehicles that don’t exist or don’t need them. Hancock County, Mississippi, probably won’t be the last place to propose developing a commercial spaceport, despite an unclear customer base or market; like others, seeking to grab a piece of what they believe is an ascending field, as well as the glamour associated with it.