public money in these ventures. Most notable among them is the Oklahoma Spaceport, which recently was licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Clinton-Sherman Industrial Airpark -- the former Air Force base that houses the space facility -- is now managed by the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Agency (OSIDA), a state agency established in 1999 to develop a spaceport. At the time, a new spacecraft called the VentureStar was poised to become the flagship vehicle in the commercial space industry. The VentureStar was built by Lockheed-Martin as an unmanned space plane capable of delivering payloads at a fraction of the cost of a Space Shuttle mission. Unfortunately numerous problems and cost overruns cut short the VentureStar's existence, with development being cancelled in 2001.

By this time, however, OSIDA already had begun transforming the old Clinton-Sherman airbase into a spaceport. The runway at Clinton-Sherman is ideal for the horizontal takeoffs and landings of runway hogging, rocket-powered spacecrafts. Originally built to handle B-52 Stratofortresses loaded with nuclear bombs, the concrete runway is an impressive 13,500 feet long, 300 feet wide and more than a foot thick. However, prior to the X-Prize and following the VentureStar's failure, private space activities were a hard sell.

"The initial challenge for us was, at the time, the concept that the private sector was going to be able to develop vehicles that would be in a position to access space, whether it be suborbital or orbital -- that was not given very much credibility," said Bill Khourie, OSIDA's executive director. "And until Burt Rutan opened that door, I think there was a lot of skepticism as to whether this was really going to be something the private sector could do."

After the VentureStar's cancellation, the prospects for space tourism in Oklahoma looked grim. In an effort to foster competition during the VentureStar era, the Oklahoma Legislature passed SB 55, which authorized the state to award millions in transferable tax credits to a qualifying company proposing to build a space plane. When Lockheed's project was cancelled, this so-called "O-Prize" was still waiting to be claimed, though the offer of tax credits was set to expire in 2003.

On the last day of that year, George French, the president of a small company called Rocketplane (now Rocketplane Kistler), submitted documentation to Oklahoma, claiming the company had the required $10 million in initial capital, would create at least 30 jobs, locate their headquarters in Oklahoma and could build a space plane -- all conditions mandated by the O-Prize legislation. Rocketplane Kistler's plans were to build a horizontal takeoff and landing vehicle based on the airframe of a Lear jet executive aircraft. The rocket-powered craft, called the Rocketplane XP, will reach suborbital space much like the craft Virgin Galactic is building. After reviewing the documentation, Oklahoma awarded Rocketplane Kistler $15 million in transferable tax credit, which the company sold, using the proceeds for additional seed money.

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jay Edwards has perhaps the most complete perspective on the rise of space tourism in Oklahoma. Edwards is the former executive director of OSIDA and now serves as the government/regulatory liaison for Rocketplane Kistler. Edwards said Oklahoma views the industry much the same way states did in the early years of commercial aviation.

"It does create jobs, and the jobs are usually high-paying jobs, but more importantly than that, [the state is involved] in order to get in on the beginning of the commercialization of space, which is a new industry," Edwards said. "The state looks at the model aviation took when it started from the barn-storming days -- when no one thought the airplane had a particular commercial application -- to what happened once Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, and they realized, 'Hey, this airplane does fuel the economy; this airplane does make a difference.' And when that happened, states all over

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.