Interest in commercial spaceports is spreading rapidly as suborbital spacecraft like Armadillo’s Hyperion, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, and XCOR’s Lynx move closer to flight. Florida continues its attempts to woo suborbital companies to spaceports in Jacksonville and the Kennedy Space Center / Cape Canaveral area. In Texas, there’s talk about establishing a commercial spaceport at Ellington Airport near Houston, in addition to the private spaceport operated by Blue Origin in west Texas and the orbital launch site proposed by SpaceX for south Texas. The latests state to join the race is Colorado, with Governor John Hickenlooper and other state officials backing a proposal to develop Spaceport Colorado at Front Range Airport in Aurora.
This interest is not limited to the United States. Space Expedition Curacao plans to operate an XCOR Lynx from a spaceport in the Caribbean, and Virgin Galactic has a similar deal with a United Arab Emirates group that wants to establish a spaceport in Abu Dhabi.
A new report indicates there is considerable interest in Great Britain as well.
The report, entitled Space: Britain’s New Infrastructure Frontier, was issued by the Institute of Directors and written by Dan Lewis, chief executive of the Economic Policy Centre with input from spaceport consultant Jim Bennett.
According to the report, Britain could develop a spaceport for a fraction of the $200 million being spent on Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Day and Bennett believe that spaceports should be viewed as regional development opportunities, rather than mass transportation facilities like airport. They believe that spaceports will serve as incubators for business and research. To maximize this potential, they say, spaceports should be located near major universities with strong science and engineering departments.
The potential of suborbital science is one of the primary drivers behind this push:
There is huge excitement in the scientific world about the low cost research opportunities that will be opened up by [Virgin Galactic] and XCOR. The Southwest Research Institute has already purchased 6 seats for its researchers to conduct experiments on [Virgin Galactic] and another six on XCOR along with scientific payloads. Citizens in Space has bought 10 suborbital spaceflights from XCOR. The costs of doing small experiments in space will be dramatically lower and the queue a high factor lower… A spaceport for suborbital craft in the UK opens up quick, cheap and easy access to research for British-based researchers that wasn’t there before. Telescope time above the atmosphere is going to cost $50,000 rather than $10 million for example.
Citizen space exploration (aka space tourism) is not overlooked, either. The report says that a spaceport should be located in an area that would provide a good view of scenery from space, such as one of the existing air bases in Scotland, such as RAF Lossiemouth, or Northern Ireland. Those northern air bases are also considered good sites for satellite launches to polar orbit using upper stages launched from suborbital spacecraft such as Lynx Mark III.
One possible worry, or perhaps opportunity, is the possibility that Scotland might secede from the United Kingdom. If the matter of Scottish secession is not settled before a spaceport is established, it might create regulatory uncertainty for spaceport investors. As a result, the report suggests a possible alternative site on a manmade island in Severn Estuary at the eastern end of the Bristol Channel in southwest England. The site was previously considered for a new commercial airport, Severnside International, which was rejected on grounds of estimated cost (£2 billion). A spaceport can’t justify that price tag, either, but a dual-use facility might.
There is also the possibility that Scotland might secede before the spaceport is built. If that happens, the Scottish government might demand the removal of Royal Air Force bases from Scotland. That would create an opportunity for one of the newly vacant bases to become a dedicated spaceport.