A fire at a radar tracking station has delayed launches from the Eastern Test Range at Cape Canveral until mid-April, at the earliest, Space Florida reports.
This incident underscores a point which the late space visionary G. Harry Stine hammered home more than 20 years ago: a successful commercial launch vehicle must not be dependent on conventional range systems. Government ranges and launch sites are too fragile and too expensive for frequent, cheap access to space.
That point was duly noted by engineers who built the Delta Clipper Experimental (better known as DC-X) in the 1990′s. Delta Clipper proponents envisioned an operational system that would support thousands of launches per year, not the paltry dozen or so provided by expendable rockets. Achieving that goal would require drastic reductions in the size of the “standing army,” to achieve the desired economies, and ground facilities that operated more like commercial airports than guided-missile ranges.
The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation is requesting public comments on a draft environmental assessment for the Midland International Air and Space Port, the planned future home of XCOR Aerospace.
To operate a commercial spaceport, the City of Midland must obtain a launch-site operator license from the FAA. The environmental assessment is a license requirement.
The proposed launch-site license would allow the City of Midland to modify the existing airport boundary, install above-ground propellant storage tanks, and construct a concrete pad for engine testing.
According to the proposal, XCOR Lynx launch operations would begin in 2014 and continue through 2018. The frequency of launch operations would be one launch per week initially, increasing to two launches per day, five days a week. Fifty-two annual launch operations are proposed in 2014, increasing to 520 in 2018.
The draft environmental assessment analyzes possible effects on air quality, land use, plants, fish and wildlife; floodplains; hazardous materials, pollution prevention, solid waste; historical, architectural, archaeological, and cultural resources; natural resources and energy supply; noise; socioeconomic impacts, environmental justice, and children’s environmental health and safety risks; water quality; and wetlands.
A copy of the draft environmental assessment is available on the FAA Web site.
The FAA will hold a public meeting to discuss the draft assessment on 8 April 2014 from 5:30 to 8:30 PM at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. The meeting will take place in the Foyer Room at the Center for Energy and Economic Diversification. The public may also submit written comments by 21 April, 2014.
Virgin Galactic has purchased 11 hangars at the former Roosevelt Roads naval station in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, according to Caribbean Business.
The Caribbean Business article is short on details. Caribbean Business quotes anonymous sources and states that Virgin Galactic has not provided any details. The article states that Virgin Galactic “plans to develop a launch pad for commercial spacecraft and satellites in Ceiba,” which is almost certainly wrong since there is no evidence that Virgin is developing a vertical ground-launch system.
[Update 1 (March 9): A report by the press agency EFE quotes Alberto Baco Bagu, Puerto Rico's Secretary of Economic Development and Trade, saying that no deal has been reached with Virgin Galactic.]
[Update 2 (March 10): Virgin Galactic says there is "no truth" to reports that it has purchased or leased land/hangars in Puerto Rico.]
A new promotional video for Spaceport Sweden, a proposed suborbital launch site 100 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.
A SpaceX launch site near Brownsville in South Texas is looking more likely, according to news reports.
Spaceflight Now quotes SpaceX founder Elon Musk saying, “I think Texas is looking increasingly likely,” although the final go-ahead is still dependent on environmental and regulatory approval.
According to Spaceflight Now, SpaceX believes it has enough business to justify four launch pads: two in Florida, and one each in Texas and California.
The Texas launch site would be dedicated to commercial launches, while NASA missions would continue to be launched out of Florida. SpaceX currently uses pad at Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and is also bidding on Pad 39A, the former Apollo/Shuttle launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
California is the site for polar launches (including military missions) from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
SpaceX has nearly 50 missions scheduled over the five-year lease period it is seeking at Pad 39A. SpaceX believes this is sufficient to justify developing and maintaining four launch pads. This demand is based on both the Falcon 9 and proposed Falcon Heavy.
An interesting question is now the reusable Falcon 9R, now in development, would affect these pad requirements. The answer to that question is unknown to us and, we suspect, probably unknown to SpaceX.
Swiss Space Systems (S3) has announced the establishment of a US subsidiary, S3 USA. The news follows last week’s announcement of a partnership between S3 and Spaceport Colorado, located at Front Range Airport just south of Denver.
S3, which is developing the SOAR spaceplane, currently has 50 employees in Switzerland. The suborbital SOAR spaceplane would be launched from the top of an Airbus A300 airliner at an altitude of 33,000 feet, reaching an apogee of 50 miles. The payload could be a pressurized module for microgravity experiments or an upper stage capable of placing a 550-pound satellite into orbit. A later version of the SOAR spaceplane could carry passengers on long-distance suborbital point-to-point flights.
The air-launch approach is similar to concepts proposed by Len Cormier and the US Air Force in the past.
Spaceport Colorado is a concept that’s been in development since August 2011. Front Range Airport is located just 40 minutes from downtown Denver and 18 minutes from Denver International Airport, currently the 11th busiest airport in the world. According to spaceport officials, “Colorado companies already conduct business with Europe in the morning, Asia in the evening and South America in the same business day. Future suborbital trips will reduce flight times to these destinations to a few hours.”
Front Range Airport started work on the FAA spaceport licensing application process in early 2012. The State of Colorado has supported the venture by passing a limited-liability spaceflight act, which received unanimous approval from both houses of the legislature and was signed into law by Governor Hickenlooper at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs on April 19, 2012.
The Federal government shutdown could delay the issuing of spaceport license for Midland International Airport, according to this west Texas news report.
The spaceport license was originally expected by the end of this year, but now is not expected until February 2014. The license “remains at the environmental assessment stage” at the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
It’s also reported that Midland Development Corporation has purchased 374 acres of land for $4 million in connection with the spaceport project, which is intended to bring XCOR Aerospace to Midland sometime next year. The exact timing of the move remains up in the air, however. A contractor is currently being selected to renovate hangar and office space for the company, which recently hired five employees in Midland as part of its transition from California to Texas.
XCOR plans to display its full-scale Lynx mockup at the Commemorative Air Force Airsho 2013 in Midland on October 12-13.
Spaceport America will take out loans for $21 million to build visitor centers at the spaceport and in the town of Truth or Consequences, according to the Las Cruces Sun-News.
The visitor centers are critical to the Spaceport Authority’s business model, which predicts 200,000 visitors per year (about 550 on an average day).
The State of New Mexico included $15 million for visitor center construction in the spaceport’s $209 million budget appropriation two years ago. That money is no longer available, however, due to cost escalation (including the recent requirement to add a $7 million runway extension). The state Board of Finance has given the Spaceport Authority to seek private loans instead. The loans would be secured by mortgages against the visitor-center buildings.
Commercial spaceflights from the proposed spaceport at Ellington Airport, near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, could begin by 2018, according to a planning document presented by the Houston Airport System.
A research and business park could be operation by 2016, with visiting flights by space launch systems beginning in 2018 and Ellington-based spaceflight operations in 2020. The timeline appeared in a July 2013 presentation to the Houston City Council by Houston Airport System director of aviation Mario Diaz and senior executive for business development Arturo Machuca.
Ellington Airport, located near Johnson Space Center, just south of Houston, could become the nation’s ninth licensed commercial spaceport.
The Houston Airport System unveiled part of its vision for the future of Ellington Airport today. Conceptual renderings of a possible Spaceport have been released to the public. Renderings show a terminal facility, an aviation museum and accompanying aerospace industries. The unveiling occurred as the City of Houston prepared to host the annual meeting of the Commercial Space Federation.
“This is a new and exciting sector of the 21st Century economy that carries amazing potential for growth,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker. “We believe a licensed Spaceport in Houston would not only serve as an economic generator for the city but it would also enhance Houston’s well-deserved reputation as a leader and key player in the aerospace industry.”
Houston City Council members agreed with that assessment on July 17, 2013, when they voiced their overwhelming support for the pursuit of Spaceport licensing at Ellington Airport. If the required license is secured, the Houston Airport System could move forward to establish the infrastructure and support facilities needed to accommodate enterprises such as component and composite fabrication, space-vehicle assembly, launching of micro-satellites, astronaut training, zero-gravity experimentation and space tourism.
“It’s important to realize that this type of work is already taking place today,” said Houston Aviation Director Mario C. Diaz. “This is not a conversation based on science fiction or futuristic projections. This is a conversation about how Houston can access and enhance an industry that is already well-established and growing exponentially.”
“It is gratifying to see Houston emerge as the latest applicant to join the growing network of spaceports across the country,” said Commercial Spaceflight Federation president Michael Lopez-Alegria. “The area has many attributes that appeal to commercial space entities, including geographical location that allows easy access to offshore airspace, a strong and diverse economy that provides an educated and skilled workforce, and of course a long tradition of close association with human spaceflight.”
The launches proposed for Ellington Airport would be limited to horizontal takeoff reusable spacecraft. Since receiving City Council approval, the Houston Airport System has been working through the countless details associated with the project.
California State Senator Steven Knight (the son of X-15 pilot Pete Knight) has introduced a bill that grants a sales-tax exemption for spaceflight equipment and materials.
Senate Bill 19, the Space Flight Sales Tax Exemption Act, provides an exemption for “the gross receipts from the sale of, and the storage, use, or other consumption of, qualified property for use in space flight.”
The exemption also includes “equipment and materials used to construct, reconstruct, or improve new or existing facilities designed to operate, launch, manufacture, fabricate, assemble, or process equipment that facilitates the renovation, rehabilitation, or reconstruction of commercial space launch sites.”
The bill, which has been endorsed by the American Insitute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is intended to improve California’s business requirement, which has caused companies such as Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems and XCOR Aerospace to leave California. Whether it will be sufficient remains to be seen.
The Houston Airport System is officially moving ahead with plans to turn Ellington Airport, near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, into an FAA-licensed commercial spaceport, according to statements by airport system director Mario Diaz as reported by the Houston Chronicle and ABC Channel 13.
Diaz made his remarks during a State of the Airports address before the Greater Houston Partnership.
“Space… just happens to be our next destination,” Diaz said. The Houston Airport System has completed a feasibility study that estimates it would cost $48-122 million to turn Ellington into a spaceport for suborbital spacecraft. An FAA license could be obtained in as little as 15-18 months, Diaz believes.
In the longer term, Diaz envisions spacecraft “skimming along the top of the world, connecting Houston with places as far and remote as Singapore in under three hours.”
The Ellington Spaceport would be “a cluster of aviation and aerospace companies can flourish and where Houston can again step forward to lead the nation in the transition from a federal to a commercial space program.” Diaz suggested that Ellington Spaceport might be a site for spacecraft manufacturing as well as operations.
Virgin Galactic was mentioned as a possible customer for the spaceport. XCOR Aerospace, which was not mentioned, plans to move its research-and-development headquarters and corporate to Midland, Texas later this year. Although XCOR plans to conduct R&D flights out of Midland, it does not have current plans for commercial service out of that facility. Basing on XCOR Lynx at Ellington field would provide scientists and citizen space explorers with good views of the Gulf of Mexico.
The New Mexican standoff has ended. Legislators have reached a compromise to resolve a liability that threatened to turn Spaceport America into a ghost town.
The issue hinges on liability waivers for spaceflight participants, who fly under the FAA’s doctrine of “informed consent.” The state needs to pass legislation to ensure that those waivers will stand up in court. This is similar to liability protection which the state provides for other industries, such as skiing and horseback riding, where the participant accepts a risk.
New Mexico has existing legislation that protects space-vehicle operators from lawsuits by spaceflight participants, but the existing legislation does not extend to vehicle and part manufacturers. That is a big concern for Virgin Galactic, which recently acquired 100% ownership in The SpaceShip Company, making it the manufacturer as well as operator. Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant at SpacePort America, and there was concern that Virgin might pull out if the law was not extended to cover manufacturers.
Adding to New Mexico’s woes is the fact that other states, such as Texas, have already passed liability legislation that covers manufacturers.
New Mexico lawmakers have been trying to pass a more comprehensive spaceflight-participant liability bill since 2011, but their efforts have been blocked by the lobbying of trial lawyers.
Yesterday, it was announced that the two sides had reached a compromise which will allow legislation to pass this year. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the new bill will allow lawsuits against manufacturers but impose a cap on damages. In return, Virgin Galactic would extend its lease on facilities at Spaceport America, which is currently set to expire in 2018.
A group of New Mexico legislators led by Sen. John Arthur Smith (D-Demming) is warning that the $200-million Spaceport America “could become a ghost town, with tumbleweeds crossing the runways” if critical liability legislation is not passed.
The New Mexico legislature has passed a liability law that protects space-transportation operators such as Virgin Galactic, but the bill does not cover vehicle manufacturers and part suppliers. That omission puts New Mexico “at a terrible disadvantage” relative to Texas, Colorado, Florida, and Virginia, Smith said.
Southern Georgia has joined the rapidly growing list of potential commercial spaceports sites.
The Camden County Joint Development Authority announced today that its board has voted to explore the development of an “Aero-Spaceport” on land currently owned by Union Carbide Corporation and formerly leased to Bayer CropScience. In addition to functioning as a spaceport, the project would allow the city of St. Marys to relocate the existing St. Marys Municipal Airport away from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, the largest employer in the region. Senior Navy officials have stated that the existing airport poses safety and security concerns.
The proposed Aero-Spaceport site includes more than 4,000 acres of land, a small private airfield, and a rocket-engine testing facility that was used during the Apollo program. Saturn rocket engines were shipped to the site by barge along the adjoining Intracoastal Waterway.
Other sites for the new St. Marys Airport are under consideration, but none of those sites have the same spaceport potential. Joint Development Authority executive director David Keating said, “Launching off out over marsh and then to ocean-based airspace, that’s what’s so special about this property, quick access to ocean-based airspace. And because of these unique features, the property has been generating significant attention for amongst aerospace and commercial-space companies.”
The Georgia Department of Economic Development has been exploring the market potential of a commercial spaceport at the site and reports “significant industry interest.” The proposed spaceport would accommodate both horizontal and vertical launches. Horizontal-launch vehicles would share dual-use facilities with the new airport.
If the project receives the necessary funding and regulatory approval, construction could begin as early as 2014. Initial Aero-Spaceport operations could begin in late 2014 or early 2015.
Space Florida, the state’s spaceport authority and aerospace economic development organization, and NanoRacks LLC have announced the Space Florida International Space Station Research Competition. NanoRacks will provide up to eight Payload Box Units (NanoLabs). Space Florida will cover the costs of payload transportation to ISS for eight winning applicants. An independent team of judges will review research proposals based on commercial viability and overall benefit to mankind.
The Midland Reporter-Telegram reports that Midland International Airport is making progress on the FAA spaceport licensing process, in preparation for XCOR Aerospace’s upcoming move to Texas.
According to the Reporter-Telegram, the Midland City Council has amended a contract with engineering consulting firm Parkhill, Smith, and Cooper to cover work on the launch-site license application including an environmental assessment, a baseline noise study, and a sonic-boom analysis.
The article states, “The contract was amended for costs of up to $628,502.”
$628,000 is not a huge sum of money in the context of establishing a new spaceport, but it’s not trivial, either. None of this money goes to build the spaceport, it’s merely paperwork – and that sum doesn’t even include the additional money the Federal government must spend to process and evaluate the paperwork
Launch-site licensing for reusable vehicles is a relatively new area for the FAA, despite previous successful launch-site applications beginning with Mojave Air and Space Port. Midland is also breaking new ground by being the first to establish a spaceport at commercial airport with scheduled passenger airline service.
Licensing expenses of this magnitude are tolerable in the context of a major corporate R&D center, such as the one XCOR is planning for Midland. That may not always be true for future launch sites, however. If suborbital vehicles proliferate as rapidly as both industry and FAA are hoping, there may soon be dozens of launch sites, all over the country. Some may be bustling commercial spaceports, but others may be special-purpose sites that support a limited number of launches for a period of time.
It’s natural to assume that the cost of preparing a launch-site license application will go down over time as industry gains more experience in the process. There’s also the natural tendency of bureaucrats to add more and more requirements over time, however. The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation under Dr. George Nield has had a good working relationship with industry. They understand the potential danger that runaway regulation could pose for the industry. There is no guarantee that will always be the case, however. Eternal vigilance, as they say…
We’re not talking about the migration of humans from Earth into space, although we are optimistic that will begin in earnest in the next few years.
We’re talking about the migration of commercial space companies from one part of the United States to another.
In July, XCOR Aerospace announced the relocation of its main research and development operation to Midland, Texas. Next week, XCOR is expected to make another announcement. Although the official statement won’t come until August 23, word is already out on the street that XCOR will announce the development of an engine and vehicle production facility in Florida.
XCOR will retain some operations at Mojave Air and Space Port, in the high desert of California where the company was born. It will probably continue to base a Lynx suborbital spaceship there for the foreseeable future, to provide a launch site for West Coast missions. The company’s main focus, however, is clearly shifting to other states.
Some observers may question the sudden expansion of XCOR into not one, but two new states. The move makes sense, however. Locating R&D and production facilities in two separate states will minimize the possibility of R&D activities randomizing the assembly line.
It’s also worth noting that Masten Space Systems has a signed contract with Space Florida to begin flying its VTVL rocketship at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. At the moment, the agreement calls for nothing more than demonstration flights, but that could change in the future. Space Florida officials expect XCOR to create 152 new jobs in Florida. They are no doubt keeping a close eye on Masten. If they see similar potential for growth, it’s reasonable to expect that they will make a push for that company as well.
Meanwhile, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is looking to expand operations in Texas, both at its McGregor testing facility near Waco and a proposed new launch site in South Texas.
All of these moves have one common denominator: they are away from California. While other states are dangling incentives in front of emerging space companies, California has elected to incentivize trial lawyers instead. States such as Texas have passed bills to protect commercial spaceflight operators from potentially crippling lawsuits, but a bill introduced in the California legislature was watered down to the point of meaninglessness. It appears that California has decided to export aerospace jobs.
If anyone is curious about XCOR Aerospace’s new home in Texas and looking for an excuse to visit Midland, there’s one coming up this fall.
October 13-14 is the annual CAF Airsho. (No, we did not misspell it.)
Midland is home base for the Commemorative Air Force and the CAF Airpower Museum, which maintains the largest World War II military collection in private hands today. The annual CAF Airsho is considered to be the best World War II warbird show in the country. This video from a couple years ago shows some of the highlights from the show.
In case anyone is wondering, we’ve been informed that XCOR Aerospace will not participate in this year’s show. They were invited but they’re too busy building the Lynx.
The National Geographic Channel did a nice program on the building of Spaceport America.
This episode of Megastructures does a good job of conveying the scale of the undertaking. It’s also interesting to see the little town of Hatch, NM. Central Market in Texas is currently holding its annual two-week Hatch Chili Festival. If not for Central Market, most people would never have heard of Hatch.
If successful, Spaceport America will provide new opportunities for many locals. At the same time, however, we must compare the $200+ million being spent on Spaceport America with the $40 million in incentives which Midland, TX is offering to XCOR Aerospace. New Mexico is staking a lot more money. Will Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America be five times as successful as XCOR?
This demonstrates, of course, the cost advantage of an existing airport like Midland International or Mojave over a greenfield site like Spaceport New Mexico. At some point, space commerce may outgrow such mixed-use facilities and New Mexico’s investment will start to look prescient. At the moment, however, no one can predict how soon that day will come.