On Tuesday, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado announced that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved $200,000 in grant monies for a Colorado spaceport feasibility study.
Spaceports are similar to regular airports with the airplanes being replaced by commercial craft that are part airplane and part spacecraft. These vehicles would “fly” suborbital paths outside Earth’s atmosphere, thus allowing travelers and commercial payloads to travel to their destinations more quickly. According to the Colorado Space Coalition website, a trip to Australia, for example, would take less than 5 hours instead of the normal 20 hours.
“We see Spaceport Colorado as a key driver for bringing a wide array of spaceflight-related business to our state, including spacecraft development and manufacturing, advanced scientific research, and crew training,” said Tom Clark, CEO, Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. Additionally, the spaceport could also offer other options such as space tourism, global travel, and unmanned spacecraft facilities.
The recently approved study will be the first step in obtaining a license to operate a commercial spaceport in Colorado, one of several states seeking to establish a spaceport. Alaska, California, Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia are already designated as spaceport states, and some of these states are already proceeding with spaceport development. Phase one of Spaceport America, the world’s first commercial spaceport built specifically for sending tourists and payloads into space, is nearing completion in New Mexico at a cost of $209 billion in taxpayer funds.
The proposed site for the Colorado spaceport is Front Range Airport, which is six miles east of Denver International Airport. Last December, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced that he had requested the federal government “designate” Front Range Airport a spaceport for “suborbital horizontal takeoff,” making the proposed spaceport the first to offer horizontal launch capabilities.
To further entice commercial aerospace business to Colorado, Hickenlooper also signed a limited liability law into effect. The “informed consent” law gives permanent liability exemption to both spacecraft carriers and suppliers from lawsuits by passengers in the event of a crash or explosion. The law is based on one used by ski resorts, which exempts them from lawsuits by skiers who waive their rights when they buy a ski pass. The law does not exempt spacecraft carriers and suppliers from cases involving gross negligence or from damage incurred on the ground, however.
“Having a spaceport in Denver will make Colorado a leader in space travel and solidify our reputation as a pioneer in the 21st century innovation economy,” Senator Bennet said in a press release. “It will bring jobs to our state and fuel economic development and scientific research. This effort has been an ‘all hands on deck’ approach and I’m proud to partner with leaders throughout the state to work on making this dream a reality.”
So while it appears Colorado and a number of other states are rocketing ahead in their development of spaceports, the question remains, “If they build them, who will come?”
Is there really a demand for commercial spaceports?
The experts are divided on this one. According to Alex Ignatiev, a physics professor at the University of Houston and adviser to space companies, “Right now, the industry is not there to support it.”
Andrew Nelson, COO of XCOR Aerospace, which manufactures reusable rocket engines for major aerospace contractors, disagrees. “In the next couple to three years, there’s going to be a demonstrative reduction in the cost to launch stuff…so we are going to have a lot more people coming out of the woodwork.”
In either case, it will be a lengthy process before Colorado’s spaceport is launched. As reported in the Denver Post, even before submitting a license application to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, Colorado must secure both private and state and local sources of funding to match federal grants, which will provide up to 50 percent of the total project cost. And of those funds, at least 10 percent of the total project must be funded by private donors. Additionally, an environmental impact study must also be conducted. Once all of these steps are completed, it is hoped that Colorado will be in the position to have a spaceport license by the end of next year.
Although spaceports are being touted as economic gains, would most people choose the same priorities for the billions of dollars that will be spent on each spaceport, or would most choose something else; possibly fixing the deteriorating infrastructures such as the roads needed to get to all of those spaceports? But maybe these space visionaries do know how best to spend our hard-earned dollars.
And I wonder, will Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” become required reading, because I can’t envision many of us being able to
fork out the $200,000 needed for a spaceport traveler’s ticket.
As article appeared in print:
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