Space Race II: Paving a new path to space

By IRENE MONA KLOTZ, United Press International  |  July 8, 2004 at 10:41 AM
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A series by United Press International exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight.


MOJAVE, Calif., June 28 (UPI) -- For 43 years, America has had a single port for launching people into space: Cape Canaveral, Fla., an undeveloped, dune-lined beach that noses into the Atlantic Ocean from the peninsula's east coast.

That changed last week when a high-altitude, twin turbojet christened White Knight took to the skies over California's Mojave Desert toting a matching, star-spangled rocketship named SpaceShipOne. As it was rolled out to the runway for a shot at history, it passed a banner beneath the control tower window.

"Mojave Airport," the banner read, "America's First Inland Spaceport."

Four days before SpaceShipOne rocked the status quo by becoming the first privately owned vehicle to carry a person into space, the Federal Aviation Administration granted a commercial spaceport operator's license to the Mojave Civilian Test Flight Center -- the first non-coastal complex in the country with a pathway to space.

"I believe the renaissance is about to begin," Stuart "Stu" Witt, the airport's general manager, told United Press International.

Witt has big plans for Mojave's expansion, which he says is operating at about 3 percent capacity. That does not mean there is not much activity going on at Mojave. Rather, it addresses the reality that, with 3,300 remote acres of land, Mojave Airport has a lot of room for growth.

Witt sees space -- and space tourism in particular -- as a lucrative business in Mojave Airport's future. Including aircraft designer Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites -- which owns SpaceShipOne -- eight aerospace firms already have made Mojave home base. Rutan's neighbors include XCOR Aerospace, which is developing a passenger-carrying rocket plane named Xerus, and Interorbital Systems, which is planning to offer orbital vacations as well as a commercial lunar base.

The airport also is home to Space Launch Corp., which has a Defense Advanced Research Project Agency contract to design a low-cost launch system to put small payloads into orbit within 24 hours of arrival at the launch site.

Technically, Mojave is not the nation's commerical first spaceport. It follows Florida's Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, and the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska in gaining federal approval for non-government launch activities. It does have, however, a leading edge in opening a new road to the space frontier: low operating costs.

After tranforming successfully from military base to privately operated civilian airport more than 50 years ago, Mojave does not employ a standing cadre of workers, like Cape Canaveral or Wallops, which can drive launch costs sky-high.

Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace for example, which is competing against Scale Composites -- as well as more than two dozen other teams in a $10 million suborbital space race called the Ansari X Prize -- looked into using NASA's Wallops Island for testing and launch operations, but found the fees there would price its rocket launches out of reach.

John Carmack, Armadillo's head, said his reusable rocket consumes about $8,000 worth of fuel for each flight. Wallops' user fees would add another $200,000 onto the tab.

Mojave managers have shown a knack for creative enterprise in the past. For example, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sidelined air travelers en masse, the Mojave base made money renting out space to commercial airliners. About 200 jets remain parked on Mojave's amply runways, generating about $20,000 a month for the airport.

"Everything I touch is about business," said Witt, who sees the FAA commercial spaceport license as a formality more than anything. "The license means that now I have to check for desert tortoises (before an operation) and if I find any, I have to have them relocated."

Witt may downplay the airport's license, but without it SpaceShipOne would not have been able to fly.

"I didn't really expect that we would need a license to fly," Rutan said at a news conference last week. "It didn't even occur to me at first."

Even though White Knight did not release SpaceShipOne for launch until the duo was about 47,000 feet above the ground, without government permission SpaceShipOne would not have been allowed to fire its rocket engine and blast off straight up for another 281,000 feet to reach the edge of space. Even with the license, White Knight's flight path was severely limited. The jet had to spiral to nearly 3 miles higher than commercial airliners fly without leaving the narrow corridor of airspace above the Mojave base. Just positioning SpaceShipOne for launch took more than an hour.

The license, however, clears XCOR and other companies for ground-based rocket engine tests at Mojave Airport. Legislation to address insurance issues, as well as passenger flights, is pending before Congress.

Mojave's status as the country's only inland spaceport may not last long. New Mexico is awaiting approval for its proposed 27-acre commercial spaceport in Upham, an undeveloped site in the southern part of the state, about 45 miles north of Las Cruces and 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences.

The X Prize Foundation, which is sponsoring the $10 million contest for the first private company to fly a three-person craft to sub-orbital altitude twice within two weeks, plans an annual showcase of sub-orbital spaceflight at the New Mexico spaceport beginning next year.

Organizer Peter Diamandis envisions the competition, called the X Prize Cup, to be similar to the Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in held annually at Oshkosh, Wis., or the Daytona 500 car race. Contestants would compete in a variety of events, such as the most number of flights within two weeks, the fastest-turnaround between flights, and the highest number of people flown within a set time period.

The FAA said New Mexico still is in the early stages of the application process and the state must complete an environmental impact study before the agency will grant a license.

Other states that have proposed inland spaceports include Nevada, Oklahoma, Montana and Texas.


Irene Klotz covers space and aviation for UPI Science News. E-mail

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