Commercial spaceports are growing faster than the launch companies they plan to host.
What do they do while they wait?
The commercial spaceflight industry has suffered its share of setbacks in the last decade. Companies working on a wide range of launch vehicles have suffered technical problems and financial difficulties, and some have gone out of business entirely. It’s been a source of frustration for would-be customers and industry advocates.
It has not, though, deterred those who want to host those vehicles when they’re finally flying. A growing number of sites in the United States have received launch site operator licenses — better known as spaceport licenses — from the Federal Aviation Administration in recent years, with more working through the application process. While a few are purpose-built spaceports, like New Mexico’s Spaceport America, many are existing, and often underutilized, airports.
So why are so many sites interested in hosting a relatively small number of vehicles, which already have agreements to operate at least initially from just a few of them? All hope to one day see spaceplanes take off and land from their facilities, and perhaps one day be hubs for high-speed point-to-point suborbital vehicles. In the meantime, though, they are attracted as much by down-to-earth business opportunities, serving as industrial parks of sorts, as they are in sending people and payloads to space.
Spaceport No. 11
The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has licensed 10 commercial spaceports to date, from Alaska to Florida. It most recently awarded a spaceport license to Houston’s Ellington Airport, not far from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in 2015.
“We expect to be number 11,” said Dave Ruppel, director of Colorado’s Front Range Airport, during a presentation at last month’s Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in nearby Broomfield, Colorado. The airport submitted its application in January, and is finalizing the review of the application with the FAA. “We still think we have a very good chance to see that license sometime late this summer.”
Front Range Airport — also known as Spaceport Colorado — is located about 10 kilometers southeast of sprawling Denver International Airport. Being so close, Ruppel said, is “both an opportunity and a challenge.” The challenge is obvious: coordinating airspace with one of the nation’s busiest airports.
Ruppel, though, doesn’t see it as an insurmountable one, given that the airport already deals with this for airplane traffic. “We’ve spent a lot of time with the [FAA’s] air traffic control organization talking about what the profile would look like, and how that profile can operate in close proximity to an airport like Denver International,” he said.
The airport’s spaceport application is based on a vehicle type known in FAA parlance as “Concept Y”: a winged vehicle that takes off from a runway under rocket power, flies a suborbital flight profile and glides back to a landing. The problem for the would-be spaceport is that XCOR’s Lynx, the only such vehicle that had been under active development, is now on hold indefinitely.
“It’s certainly unfortunate, and we hope to see that turn around in the not-too-distant future,” Ruppel said of XCOR. He said the spaceport would be able to handle other kinds of vehicles that take off and land horizontally, and could also serve as a landing site for Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser. However, the airport doesn’t plan to host vertically launched vehicles.
Despite that setback, he played up the opportunities that he believes a spaceport near a major airport, and in a major metropolitan area, create. “You have great ability to get in and out of here,” he said. “That’s not true, necessarily, of all of the other spaceports.”
Much of Ruppel’s pitch could apply to any aerospace company looking to locate at his airport, not just one planning to conduct launches from there. “Colorado’s a great place to live,” he said, and has a large aerospace economy and trained workforce. “It’s a great place to have a company.”
While Ruppel has visions of Spaceport Colorado one day hosting point-to-point suborbital flights, enabling people to fly around the world within a couple hours, his near-term business development is less focused on any kind of spaceflight. One such opportunity he said he’s pursuing is hosting companies that fly high-performance aircraft that can be used for spaceflight training.
Build it and space will come
Front Range Airport is now where Cecil Airport was six years ago. In 2010, the airport, a former naval air station on the outskirts of Jacksonville, Florida, received its FAA spaceport license. Its long runways, and a flight corridor that allowed vehicles access to restricted airspace over the Atlantic Ocean, appeared attractive. One company, Rocketplane, signed a letter of intent in 2010 to operate from Cecil as early as 2013.
Rocketplane, though, went bankrupt, and other companies have not taken its place. Only Generation Orbit, a company developing an air launch system for small satellites, has operated from the airport, using it for some “captive carry” tests that did not involve any launches. Moreover, Generation Orbit has slowed down development of its launch system.
Despite those setbacks, airport officials remain optimistic about its prospects. “You have to be developing with the mentality that you have to be able to change on a dime,” said Todd Lindner, senior manager of aviation planning for the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, which operates Cecil as well as Jacksonville International Airport.
Lindner said at the conference that he was in discussions with a couple of other vehicle developers to set up operations at Cecil, but declined to name them. He added he was in discussions with Sierra Nevada Corp. about being another landing site for Dream Chaser, even though the vehicle’s primary landing site will be just down the coast at the Kennedy Space Center.
As it waits for Dream Chaser or some other vehicle to arrive, the spaceport is working to attract other businesses. Lindner said that Cecil is developing a business park in its northeastern quadrant. Some of that infrastructure is already in place, but much of the land remains undeveloped. “It’s pretty much like a jungle,” he said. “Huge gators.”
Notably, Lindner said the airport was not just seeking vehicle developers and operators, but a broader base of aerospace component companies. “We started pursuing a lot of supporting companies that are responsible for developing components for the commercial space industry,” he said. “If you can fulfill that aerospace part of the equation, the space part of that will come.”
Collaboration and competition in Mojave
Both Front Range Airport and Cecil Airport might one day aspire to become something like Mojave Air and Space Port. The airport got its FAA spaceport license — and added “space” to its name — in 2004, the year SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. Yet that final prize-winning flight in October 2004 is the last time something took off from the spaceport and made it to space.
Despite the lack of space launch activity, though, Mojave is a thriving place. The spaceport hosts several commercial space companies, including Masten Space Systems, Stratolaunch Systems, Virgin and XCOR, who build and test vehicles there. It’s also home to many other aerospace and aviation companies.
“Our entire business is interesting because it’s pretty diverse,” said Karina Drees, chief executive of Mojave Air and Space Port, in an interview last month at the spaceport. “The NewSpace sector is by far the fastest growing sector.”
Drees said the spaceport has little difficulty attracting business. The problem is finding space for them: its hangars are fully leased, and have been for years. “If we had more hangars here, we’d be able to fill them up in no time,” she said.
Some companies, like Stratolaunch and Virgin, have built their own facilities at the spaceport, and there are expansion plans to accommodate more. Drees added the spaceport is “taking a hard look” at building additional hangars on its own to lease to new customers to meet that demand.
That strong interest in Mojave means that the spaceport doesn’t need to rely on state or federal money to finance its operations. “We’re pretty self-sustaining at this point,” she said, relying on rents and fees from its users to pay for the services it provides.
Both space and aviation companies are attracted to Mojave because of its wide open spaces and easy access to restricted airspace for flight tests, as well as a local government that makes it easy to do business there. About 2,000 people work at the spaceport, putting a strain on the small town of Mojave, which has little in the way of amenities beyond gas stations and fast food restaurants.
Drees said that improving that situation is a priority for the spaceport. “It’s a pretty attractive place to do business because of our location and the advantages we have,” she said, “but we want to this to become an attractive place to work for the employees.”
As a leading commercial spaceport, Mojave is sought out for advice by other spaceports, even as they also seek to attract some of the businesses that already operate at the spaceport. Drees said she’s regularly approached by proposed spaceports both in the United States and overseas, and has no qualms about talking with them.
“We feel very strongly that the industry needs to be collaborative for the industry to be successful,” she said. “If there are things that we can do to help them get established, we’re happy to do that.”
Even if that means helping a potential competitor? She acknowledged that it’s possible some Mojave customers might seek to go elsewhere — XCOR announced plans several years ago to move to Midland, Texas, but still has a presence in Mojave — but did not seem too concerned given what she thinks is going to be a growing industry. “We feel like the industry is going to be big enough for all of us to benefit,” she said.
That’s good news for Front Range, Cecil and other spaceports. Until the commercial spaceflight industry starts flying frequently, the business of spaceports may look more like industrial parks than launch sites.