The New Space Race

Some states are betting on spaceports to bring in jobs and build an industry.

by / December 26, 2006
"... for me the single overarching goal of human space flight is the human settlement of the solar system, and eventually beyond. I can think of no lesser purpose sufficient to justify the difficulty of the enterprise, and no greater purpose is possible." -- Michael Griffin, Administrator of NASA, in a 2004 testimony before Congress

For centuries, man has dreamt of escaping the confines of Earth and venturing into the universe's unknown blackness. Space, more than any other field of exploration, has the ability to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds. Indeed, at the dawn of the space race, everything from cars to television to toys was influenced by the wonder of what might be. But the once mighty American space industry, still essentially in its infancy, has struggled for more than two decades to recapture the public's imagination.

After the Apollo program ended in the 1970s, the Space Shuttle, unarguably a technological marvel, was touted as the next generation of space vehicle -- a manned launch system that would be safe, cheap and easily repeatable.

It was none of those things.

Following the Challenger explosion in 1986, the public's fascination with the Space Shuttle program quickly transformed into apathy, even anger. In a 1994 episode of The Simpsons that reflected popular sentiment, the satirical cartoon skewered NASA when the agency was depicted turning average nitwit Homer Simpson into an astronaut as part of a desperate attempt to rekindle public interest in Space Shuttle launches. The 2003 Columbia disaster further degraded public interest in the Shuttle program and in space exploration itself.

But there is mounting evidence that the space race will soon be reborn. Thanks largely to the 2004 X-Prize competition and a surprising attitude adjustment taking shape in NASA, many observers herald the coming years as the dawn of a race toward the commercialization of space -- bringing with it new jobs, new space vehicles and an entirely new industry. A few states already are placing bets on this burgeoning enterprise, believing in economic development potential that could be out of this world.

Rise of the Spaceport
The deserts of the southwestern United States typically are regarded as barren, lifeless expanses of rock and sagebrush. But as nature shows are fond of pointing out, there is an abundance of life hidden in the harsh landscape -- a community of creatures that can soon expect human company. In a few short years, the arid expanse from Mojave, Calif., to New Mexico will not only host coyotes, snakes and scorpions, but also wealthy people from around the world seeking what may be the ultimate adventure -- a rocket ride to space.

The commercialization of space is beginning, and the fledgling industry needs a launch pad of its own. Filling that role is something called a spaceport. The word spaceport conjures up visions of the various "Star"-related films -- be they Star Wars or Star Trek. But fact, as usual, is a bit more ordinary than fiction. A spaceport would function just like an airport, but instead of traveling to Minneapolis-St. Paul or Raleigh-Durham, passengers would hurtle more than 60 miles above the Earth's surface and return in about an hour. Some spaceport visionaries hope these facilities will include hotels, restaurants and other venues that will entertain space tourists before and after their experience.

Long the exclusive territory of NASA and the military, the spaceport is being transformed into a commercially viable enterprise, with economic development opportunities ripe for the picking -- precisely why New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson initiated a bold plan to bring the commercial space travel industry to his state.

In December 2005, Richardson struck an agreement with adventurer extraordinaire and Virgin Companies Chairman Sir Richard Branson. The newly created Virgin Galactic, a Virgin Companies subsidiary, would be the first permanent tenant of New Mexico's Spaceport America. In July 2006, New Mexico economic development Secretary Rick Homans announced a partnership with Virgin Galactic, a division of mega-corporation Virgin, to develop Spaceport America. The $225 million facility will be built near the White Sands Missile Range -- and its already restricted air space -- in New Mexico, with $100 million coming directly from the state's coffers. The remaining $125 million will be funded through tax severance bonds and will be used to build infrastructure such as roads, water and power.

"It all comes down to new jobs and new opportunity, and that's what every state -- that's what the United States -- is trying to figure out; what's our role in this new worldwide global economy?" Homans said. "We see the birth of a new industry here and our studies -- one by the Futron Corp., an international consulting firm in aerospace, and the other from New Mexico State University -- show generally up to $1 billion in new revenue to the state of New Mexico and somewhere over 5,000 new jobs would be created by the year 2020 in this new industry, if it pans out the way we are all thinking.

"That's a transformative impact on a state like New Mexico with a population of 1.8 million people," he continued. "Those number of jobs might be a drop in the bucket in California or Florida, but to New Mexico that's a big deal, and it's worth our putting significant financial resources behind it to make that happen."

Besides the spaceport's potential economic impact, Homans said his state wants to avoid the mistakes it made when Bill Gates came to Albuquerque to start Microsoft. Back then, Homans said, the state was not ready to embrace and assist the new computer industry, nor willing to take the required risk. As a result, Gates and Microsoft fled to Washington state.

That's part of the motivation to pursue what many might consider a far-out way to spend taxpayers' money. Homans said intangibles -- such as civic pride and being at the forefront of something with spectacular potential -- also play a role.

"We see a rare opportunity to be in on the ground floor of something that is potentially huge and has a huge impact on the world, on the country, and certainly on our state," he said. "That's sort of part of the motivation too -- to send a signal worldwide that New Mexico embraces new technology; it embraces some element of risk, entrepreneurs and new ideas. And that's a very important message to send because that's what economic success in the future is going to be built on."

The idea of the spaceport has been floating around New Mexico for more than 15 years. In fact, the state has had a romance with space for decades, starting with Werner Von Braun's V2 rocket launches in the 1940s, followed by what Homans mirthfully described as "a pretty historic visit to New Mexico" -- the famous 1947 Roswell Incident in which extraterrestrials allegedly crash landed in an area ranch, only to be hauled off by nefarious government agents.

When the idea for a spaceport first came up, Homans explained, the theory was that the state ought not do anything until a new, reusable launch vehicle was developed, and had a bona fide spaceport customer.

Part of the spaceport puzzle fell into place on Oct. 4, 2004, when famed aircraft creator Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites, builders of Voyager, the first aircraft to circumnavigate the earth without stopping, won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize. Rutan's company captured the X-Prize for building and successfully flying the first privately constructed, reusable, manned spacecraft into space and returning safely to the earth. The Ansari X-Prize -- so named for Anousheh Ansari, the principal sponsor of the competition and recent visitor to the International Space Station (ISS) -- vaulted the notion of private space flight from the pages of science fiction into an industry grounded in reality and poised to make a lot of money.

Money was another puzzle piece. The spacecraft designed by Rutan, SpaceShipOne, used a revolutionary design (when compared to the Space Shuttle) that permits trips into suborbital space for hundreds of thousands of dollars versus hundreds of millions for NASA launches. Branson, who built an empire on his apparently limitless passion for risky entrepreneurial ventures, acquired the rights to the technology and ordered a small fleet of new space vehicles. A prototype of the cabin for the nine passenger spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, was unveiled in September at Wired magazine's NextFest in New York City.

With the vehicle and customer now in place, New Mexico initiated negotiations with Virgin, resulting in the December 2005 agreement that New Mexico would build a spaceport if Virgin Galactic located its world headquarters and all of its primary operations in the heart of the state.

"The rules were always very simple: Wait for the industry, wait for the customer, then go ahead," Homans said. "All those pieces were in place and the price of admission for New Mexico to be at the front of this new industry, the price of admission is to build a spaceport."

There is, however, a third piece to the puzzle: a market for commercial space activity. Fancy spaceships and a glittering spaceport bring little economic benefit without people who will pay to send themselves or some other payload into orbit.

Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, said the market not only exists, but demand for space access is higher than most could have guessed.

"The early part of the market is going to be space tourism," he said. "That's where we started because there's a ready market of people who've shown enthusiasm. We've got no product to show those customers -- it won't come out of the hanger till next year -- but the response has been remarkable. We've already got nearly $17million in deposits."

Virgin Galactic's first 100 trips are already spoken for, even with a price tag of approximately $200,000 per person per ride. Such a large sum might be enough to convince regular people that there's no way such an industry can survive. But as Whitehorn pointed out, tickets for the initial transatlantic flights from Southampton, England, to New York City in 1939 would cost $75,000 in today's dollars.

The first commercial space flights are anticipated to take place in 2009, with much of 2008 dedicated to testing. Plans call for as many as two launches a day, and Branson himself has pledged to be on the first flight. Since the spacecraft will be ready before the spaceport, flights initially will launch from the Mojave Spaceport near Edwards Air Force Base.

All of this is part of a unique experiment; private industry wants to see if the commercialization of space is a worthy goal while some forward-thinking state governments position themselves to reap the benefits.

"What we need to do is build spaceport facilities," said Alex Tai, Virgin Galactic's vice president of operations, at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' (AIAA) annual Space Conference. "We need to go out there and make partnerships like we are in New Mexico, where there was an incredible amount of bravery shown by Richardson and his government."

Indeed, a handful of states are beginning to realize the possibilities a private spaceport could offer -- meanwhile the one state that should be at the forefront of the industry is essentially absent.

Spaceports: The New Airports?
While New Mexico's Spaceport America is arguably the highest profile at the moment, other states are investing 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 began to build airports so these airplanes could operate. I think states are looking at space travel as an extension of aviation travel, and are taking an interest in spaceports so that when these vehicles are proven to be safe as transport vehicles from one country to another, they will be at the front of the development."

Indeed, the widely circulated and comprehensive study by Bethesda, Md.-based Futron Corp., found the market outlook for space tourism to be surprisingly bright. The consulting firm, whose clients include NASA, the Department of Defense and the FAA, forecasts that by 2021, demand from more than 25,000 American passengers will generate more than $1 billion in annual revenue. Futron Corp. also predicts suborbital ticket prices will drop from the current $200,000 to around $50,000.

"That report gives a very strong indication that there are numerous people in this country alone who cannot only afford to do it, but want to do it," Khourie said. "That doesn't include other parts of the globe. Just from the space tourism side, it's a very strong market. Think of how many industrial applications, even from universities and other private-sector companies that might need to do something that requires zero gravity -- doing experiments, launching a payload, telecommunications -- there are so many applications out there that I think will get involved because the access to space will be so much cheaper, it will allow them to accomplish their missions and fulfill the type of goals they want to achieve as far as utilizing space vehicles."

Other states -- Florida, Wisconsin, Texas and Alaska -- have plans for their own private spaceports. In fact, Alaska's Kodiak Launch Facility has sent commercial satellites to space for nearly a decade, though it has no immediate plans for space tourism.

Ironically the one FAA-licensed spaceport that has produced successful commercial space launches has had virtually no government assistance. California's Mojave Spaceport, northeast of Los Angeles, was the site of SpaceShipOne's famed 2004 launch into history. Numerous major milestones in aviation, such as Chuck Yeager's first supersonic flight, have taken place in the Mojave Desert. But according to Stu Witt, general manager of the Mojave Airport and Spaceport, California seems content to let this industry leave the state just as it let major aerospace leave.

"[California] has given us nothing that they wouldn't give to a normal ... airport," Witt said. "The governor's representative told us directly that incentives are a race to the bottom. That was the attitude in the state of California. Everything we've had to do, we've had to do on our own."

According to Darrel Ng, chief deputy press secretary for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state must work itself out of a budget crisis before it can fund spaceports.

"California still has a multibillion dollar structural budget deficit," he said. "Given those budget constraints, the best way the governor can support a project like this is to keep California's business climate strong and highlight many of California's natural advantages, such as having the best public university system in the world, and providing the infrastructure necessary to support such a project."

There are a few supporters in the California state Legislature, most notably Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield. Witt said the state's transportation department also pledged its support, with CalTrans Director Will Kempton advocating for state investment in the Mojave Spaceport. And the state created the California Space Authority (CSA), though the funding of the CSA is said to be marginal at best.

But it appears the state is largely indifferent to the idea of a spaceport. SB 1671, sponsored by Ashburn, was killed in the Senate Appropriations Committee, ending the only serious attempt to involve the state in the industry. The bill called for an $11 million grant, to be repaid immediately once a permanent space-capable tenant was secured at the spaceport.

Further evidence of California's lack of interest came at the AIAA conference, where one closely connected speaker said Schwarzenegger had to be reminded who Burt Rutan was prior to a private meeting between the governor and the aviation and space legend.

"I was disappointed when SB 1671 did not make it through appropriations, and certain senators from the left indicated it was millions for billionaires by investing," Witt said. "California is an odd beast. California is controlled by people who certainly have encouraged aerospace to go other places in the United States over the last 20 years. This industry has been encouraged to leave the state."

Space Mania
Still, Witt and others are convinced the space industry is primed to take off. When looking at the various projects currently under way, it becomes easy to share their optimism.

NASA, for example, is fundamentally changing the way it does business. For the first time, under the leadership of newly appointed Director Michael Griffin, the space agency awarded contracts to two private companies to bring cargo to the ISS. The contract winners were selected via a $500 million contest known as Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS). The winners, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler, each demonstrated a capability to efficiently and safely deliver cargo to the ISS with a reusable launch vehicle. NASA reasoned that for $500 million -- half the cost of a single Shuttle launch -- it could encourage private industry to do some of the heavy lifting. The attitude is a new one for the agency.

"I think that Mike Griffin has fundamentally changed the image and the operation of NASA," Homans said. "What just happened in the last couple weeks when Griffin himself set aside $500 million for this COTS award and they awarded that $500 million to two companies, SpaceX and Kistler Rocketplane ... these companies are saying that for $200 [million] or $250 million we can provide a way at far less cost to take you to the space station and back, and take people and payloads with new technologies we're developing in the private sector in mostly a privately funded program to date, really this is the first government money coming into it.

"What you have is NASA embracing innovation," he continued, "embracing these entrepreneurs and giving them a shot to really prove their stuff."

Perhaps the biggest question is what does one do once in space? On suborbital flights, the reason will be the sheer thrill of a rocket ride into space. On the Rocketplane XP, for instance, passengers will ride to 25,000 feet, at which point the pilots will engage the rocket engine. The rockets will burn for 90 seconds, propelling passengers from about 250 knots to almost four times the speed of sound. In those 90 seconds, passengers will experience acceleration that is three and a half times the force of gravity until reaching the flight's zenith around 330,000 feet.

"After that 90 seconds, you're in a coasting phase, then the g-forces will lift, and you'll gradually approach microgravity," Edwards said. "You'll experience microgravity for about four to five minutes; you'll see the curvature of the earth; you'll see the blue ball; you'll be in the black part of space. The bird can be turned in such a way such that you can get a pretty good view, and then the bird will begin to descend on its own. Then you'll re-encounter the atmosphere, you'll encounter some g-forces again, though not as severe as those going up. After you get back in the atmosphere, the pilot will be positioned over the spaceport where he will do a circling landing. The whole thing will take place inside of an hour."

On the government side, Griffin and NASA are dedicating most of the agency's resources for the next decade or more to getting man back to the moon and then to Mars. NASA awarded Lockheed-Martin the contract to build the Shuttle's badly needed replacement, the crew exploration vehicle now known as Orion.

Going to the moon is great if you're NASA and have billions to spend, but what about space tourists? One of the most fascinating developments is the underreported story of Robert Bigelow, founder of Budget Suites of America and pioneer of what may be the world's first orbiting hotel.

At press time, orbiting far overhead, is Genesis-I, a quarter-scale test module for the space hotel. Built by Bigelow Aerospace, the module was launched in July on a Russian rocket. Bigelow's plan includes a $50 million award to the company best demonstrating how to bring passengers to his space hotel. With a few launches lined up for further testing of modules, Bigelow recently announced his company's plans to launch a complete, inhabitable space hotel within five years.

The notion of a space hotel, once seemingly far-fetched, is on the verge of reality. Aerospace companies like Rocketplane Kistler and SpaceDev are vying to get their spacecraft designated as the official "taxi" to Bigelow's hotel.

"We're working with companies like Bob Bigelow's aerospace corporation, which intends to provide a destination in space -- an orbiting space complex," said Bob Seto, Rocketplane Kistler's vice president of engineering systems and analysis. "That then allows people with interest in this to go into orbit and go into the activities he's planning for his space complex. It's more than a hotel. It's a set of places where experimentation for development of biomedical products, etc. People can then go up there perhaps for vacation, but perhaps can go up there for furthering industry as well. When you start going beyond that, to the resources of the moon, it's mind-boggling. This is just the start, and it's a huge amount of potential."

Not long ago, you might have been ridiculed for advocating building -- in the middle of the Nevada desert -- a giant pyramid, a medieval castle and a quarter-scale model of New York City; then stuffing them to the gills with slot machines, hotel rooms and restaurants. Similarly there is bound to be a chorus of voices decrying the construction of spaceports no matter where they're located, warning that commercial space travel is too risky and too expensive. But, if it were cheap and easy and safe, we'd already be doing it.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.


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