IN FOCUS: Spaceport America inauguration kickstarts commerical infrastructure boom

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New Mexico's Spaceport America, designated as Virgin Galactic's base, is among a dozen commercial spaceports approved by the FAA for operations

Having rappelled halfway down the hanger building to join a midair dance troupe, Richard Branson uncorked a bottle of champagne, took a swig and formally inaugurated the newest spaceport, Spaceport America. The newly designated spaceport will be Virgin Galactic's primary operational base when it begins commercial operations in 2013. "You build me a spaceport, and I'll bring you a spaceship," Branson recounted telling then-governor Bill Richardson. "You build a spaceship, I'll build you a spaceport," Richardson replied.

The spaceport is an incongruous part of the New Mexico desert, a half-hour's drive from the nearest town - the wonderfully named Truth or Consequences. But the world-class facility did not arise in isolation. The nearby White Sands missile range has rockets across the Karman line for decades, and serious proposals for an area commercial spaceport have been floating around since 1990. As of the 2000 census, Sierra County's 13,000-odd people are largely sprinkled across the vast and arid Journada del Muerto desert and earn less than half the average US income per capita. The skies above, part of the restricted airspace controlled by White Sands, deliver around 300 cloudless days annually and are seldom visited by civilian aircraft; the air itself is thinner at that elevation, necessitating slightly less energy for a rocket to escape its confines.

It is not without detriments. Spaceport America cost $209 million to build at a time when New Mexico is facing down a projected $410 million deficit. The brand-new 10,000ft runway is scarcely used: at the inauguration, the only aircraft visible were Richard Branson's Dassault Falcon business jet and a State of New Mexico helicopter. WhiteKnightTwo, with SpaceShipTwo underslung, was in attendance at the ceremony, for what several people noted was only its second visit to the spaceport (the first was in 2010, to inaugurate the runway). A dozen or so protestors greeted attendees of the recent dedication ceremony, holding up signs mostly to do with the excessive water use required to mix the spaceport's cement.

From a corporate perspective, siting a spaceport is relatively simple but very expensive. The financial cooperation of the local governments is highly recommended. The facility itself should be remote, for purposes of safety, security and secrecy. Most flights are launched east to gain the bonus energy of the Earth's rotation, allowing for heavier payloads, and more bonus energy is gained closer to the equator. A large amount of airspace is required, so the cooperation of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or local military installation is a must.

 copyright: virgin galactic

 Copyright: Virgin Galactic

The FAA has approved 12 commercial spaceports for operation, including those co-located with federal spaceports like NASA's Kennedy Space Center or the air force's Vandenberg AFB. Four of the spaceports have long runways for use by horizontal take-off and landing vehicles, such as SpaceShipTwo and Xcor's Lynx.

The Oklahoma Spaceport is based on the grounds of Clinton-Sherman Airpark, a former Strategic Air Command base that maintains its 11,300ft runway. Clinton-Sherman is the focal point of Oklahoma's drive to bring aviation industries to the state, for which it offers a number of small tax breaks. Clinton-Sherman lies underneath the airspace of the army's Ft Sill. Despite past successes, including tenancy by rocketeers Armadillo Aerospace and now-defunct Rocketplane Kistler, Oklahoma Spaceport is largely quiet today.

Cecil Field Spaceport, near Jacksonville, Florida, was a major naval aviation base until its 1999 deactivation. As is common with old military bases, the airport has runways capable of handling any aircraft yet built and more ramp space than it knows how to fill. Though other military branches and prominent contractors have filled some of the void, there is plenty of space left over. Cecil Field was awarded a spaceport license and funding from the FAA in 2010, but has yet to attract a space-related business.

More active, and more promising, are the vertical launch sites. California Spaceport, co-located with the air force's Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site, is home to established and busy space companies; so is Cape Canaveral Spaceport, on the grounds of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, co-located with NASA Wallops on the Virginia coast, near the border with Maryland. Only the Kodiak Launch Complex, on remote Kodiak Island in Alaska, has no affiliation with a federal spaceport.

A fierce and public battle is being waged between Spaceport Florida and the Mid-Atlantic Spaceport, with bitter accusations of political posturing, sketchy subsidies and underhand tactics. Both spaceports enjoy substantial subsidies from their respective states to compete for the lucrative orbital market. Spaceport Florida, of course, is the historical site of all US-based human spaceflight, but frequent NASA and air force launches take up valuable launch slots. Mid-Atlantic Spaceport is in the midst of crowded air traffic and lies further from the equator, but does not have the same launch restrictions. Mid-Atlantic Spaceport has launched several rockets into orbit.

Yet launch service providers are often inclined to provide their own facilities. Blue Origin built their own launch facility in west Texas, where they sporadically launch test flights. SpaceX is reputed to be close to a site on the Texas coastline. Spaceport America, of course, was built at great expense in the New Mexico desert, despite its proximity to Mojave Spaceport in California, where SpaceShipTwo is built and tested. Spaceports have been proposed in a number of places, notably Moses Lake, Washington, and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Each has their benefits and drawbacks, and several of the major players have not yet selected their American launch or recovery sites.

Spaceflight is in the midst of a renaissance, powered mainly by commercial launches and those who aspire to them, but it is a fragile one. As markets are still tenuous for commercial launches, both for tourism and government-related flights, the appeal of diverse and widely spread spaceports is yet to be established. However, a rising tide lifts all boats and, at least for the near future, spaceflight shows no signs of sinking.