Commentary | So You Want To Build a Spaceport

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New Mexico Gov. Jack Campbell was a visionary. In 1963, he sent a letter to U.S. President John F. Kennedy asking him to “support the establishment of the first inland aerospace port.” Today, 51 years later, the state of New Mexico is committed to evolving its role in the commercial space transportation industry. Spaceport America is one piece of the puzzle of creating a global space transportation industry that will be stimulated by the evolution of a network of spaceports in the United States.

Visionary governors are just one of the essential components in the nation’s growing commercial space transportation industry. As states increase their interest in commercial space enterprise, spaceport development has become the leading indicator of the growth of the commercial space transportation industry. Likely, the U.S. will continue to lead in the development of the spaceport network for the next 10 years, as the space transportation industry begins to grow on a global scale.

The selection by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to build its next launch site in Texas is one of those early indicators of this evolution of the space transportation industry. Texas now has three spaceports, both inland and coastal. Florida will likely keep growing its network. 

As states across the nation investigate whether building a spaceport is a good investment, it is critical to have realistic expectations in terms of infrastructure, talent and time required. But a bigger question looms — is there a certain enough future in the global commercial space transportation industry that will support the investment in a spaceport?

In considering that future, launch activity to orbit is not necessarily where the long-term growth will come for the states. Building a spaceport and related infrastructure for the suborbital launch business might be the best bet. 

The gold standard for a transportation industry is to get humans in the loop. When the suborbital vehicles begin to fly they will create supply. Supply creates its own demand. When thousands of humans go to space, they will create demand for support infrastructure. 

As new launch sites will likely be in remote locations because of noise and protection of the uninvolved public for the near-term, good roads, access to water and good communications are essential. Blending of all modes of transportation — ground, water, rail and air, along with space — is necessary. States would be wise to involve transportation departments as well as economic development departments in the early planning.

Operating a spaceport requires technically qualified personnel with experience, from the staff to the director. Spaceports can eventually be self-sustaining, like the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, yet the marketplace has few well-qualified directors who know how to operate a launch site, much less to make it self-sustaining.

ABET, formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, will leave it up to the universities to develop programs to develop these new professionals. Yet few universities have faculty teaching on subjects related to spaceport operations. Right now, the technical societies and trade associations are picking up the slack.

Recent research completed for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation captures spaceport operations best practices into an accessible framework. This searchable collection was constructed to help those investigating spaceports see the big picture regarding operations and also to educate new entrants into the industry. It will take time and investment to train good personnel and grow this new industry. 

Creating ways for taxpayers to become direct beneficiaries of the space industry is also imperative. Taxpayers want jobs. As consumers, taxpayers want products they see as directly beneficial to them. Unfortunately, space is not widely perceived to have direct benefits, but very busy spaceports will give taxpayers direct contact with the space industry. 

Ten years ago, the Ansari X Prize got the public’s attention. In May 2004, with an upfront investment of $10 million, New Mexico was selected as the host for a two-day air and space expo called the X Prize Cup. On Oct. 4, 2004, the X Prize Foundation awarded the $10 million Ansari prize to Paul Allen and Scaled Composites. Quickly, Sir Richard Branson licensed the technology from Allen. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson then used his significant personal skill to help land Virgin Galactic as an anchor tenant for our yet-to-be-built, but often-proposed, spaceport in December 2005. 

Within two years, New Mexico had two commercial space tenants and a commitment by the state to build Spaceport America. After 43 years of planning, doing the studies and writing proposals, New Mexico was on track to develop the first purpose-built commercial spaceport.

Uncertainty about whether to invest in the commercial space industry is understandable. How do we provide realistic expectations to investors and taxpayers on a large investment like a spaceport with little immediate return on investment?

We must consider a spaceport — or more importantly, a network of spaceports — as a platform for innovation, not an innovative consumer product. John Pierce with Bell Labs once described the transistor as a platform for innovation. The investment in this small technology allowed us to make giant leaps in human knowledge and spawned the telecommunications and computer industries. The commercial spaceports will kick-start a very different space transportation industry from the one we have today that is focused mostly on launching satellites. Spaceports, as a network, will enable greater supply for humans and cargo to access space. There are eight licensed spaceports, with more, like Brownsville, Texas, coming. When thousands of humans are in the loop we truly will have a fifth transportation industry. 

Our universities, states and communities need to be positioning themselves to take advantage of this emerging industry. One spaceport cannot survive; we need all of the states to keep their eyes on this industry and create their own opportunities sooner rather than later. The work is hard, expensive and time consuming, requires technically skilled personnel and leadership, and is worth doing.

 
Patricia Hynes is the director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and chair of the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight.