GOLDEN, Colo. — Colorado, a mountainous and landlocked state with an outsized share of aerospace companies, is looking to add a commercial spaceport to its portfolio.
State officials are eyeing the Front Range Airport in the city of Aurora, Colo., as a possible home for the Colorado Spaceport. The site sits on 1,600 hectares of land and is surrounded by 2,400 hectares of nonresidential, privately owned industrial property.
Some Colorado officials are pushing for a spaceport to keep the state engaged in the commercial space industry. If spaceport designation is granted, the next step would be upgrading the Front Range Airport to support space travel. Advocates envision the spaceport handling suborbital space planes and serving as a hub for a worldwide network of suborbital point-to-point travel services.
At present, Alaska, California, Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia are designated spaceport states.
In December, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announced that the state had taken the first step toward becoming a spaceport state by declaring its intent in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
Hickenlooper said the effort would help expand Colorado’s competitiveness in the aerospace industry by developing new opportunities for the state to engage in the future growth of commercial space transportation.
In early February, a letter of unanimous support from the full Colorado congressional delegation was sent to the FAA endorsing Front Range Airport as the state’s spaceport.
“A spaceport [allows] us to conceive of flying to Australia in a couple of hours … and that really does begin to revolutionize how we think about not just travel but how we do business,” Hickenlooper said in April during a talk at the 28th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
Advocates for Spaceport Colorado are pushing to have the state as a hub of civilian spaceflight activities.
Limiting legal exposure
At the symposium, Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 12-035 — a measure sponsored by Colorado state Sen. Mary Hodge and Colorado Rep. Bob Gardner — that limits legal exposure for companies conducting spaceflights at the prospective facility.
The legislation grants limited liability to spaceflight companies, allowing spaceflight participants who sign waiver forms to sue only if they are injured or killed as a result of a firm’s “willful or wanton disregard” for safety.
“The potential of horizontal take-off commercial spaceflight facilities in Colorado would soon position Colorado as the hub of civilian spaceflight activities in the country, similar to the status held by Cape Kennedy and Houston,” the bill states.
In May, three architectural firms were shortlisted in response to a Front Range Airport Request for Qualifications for spaceport consultants.
Dennis Heap, executive director of the Front Range Airport, is a veteran in the regional airline business. Heap has managed the airport for the last 18 years and is a leading champion of the site being given spaceport status.
“Airports are changing the way they do business, because outside pressures have dramatically changed airports — specifically, general aviation airports,” he said.
Heap noted that over the past years, the number of takeoffs and landings at Front Range Airport has seen its ups and downs.
“Last year, our traffic was at 21 percent of our runway capacity,” Heap said. “Under normal conditions, a facility that is grossly underutilized would not have a good future. However, Front Range Airport weaknesses are now seen as a strength, giving us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a spaceport.”
Front Range has excess capacity that could be used for unconventional vehicles like space planes and unmanned aerial vehicles, Heap noted. Front Range Airport is fairly remote yet conveniently close to Denver International Airport, the world’s 10th-busiest. It also is within commuting distance for the skilled work force that lives in the Denver metropolitan area, he said. Lockheed Martin Space Systems and United Launch Alliance are both headquartered in the Denver area.
“A spaceport here in Colorado could make a ton of sense, but only if done right,” said Jonathan Goff, president and chief executive of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics firm in Louisville, Colo. “The key is going to be finding a way to diversify so they’re not dependent on winning business from just one or two customers. It sounds like some of the people trying to make this spaceport happen are moving in that direction.”
Goff said they must find out how to work with the FAA to allow suborbital rocket flights within the Class B airspace around Denver International Airport without having to close the airspace.
“Colorado is a nice place to live, and has plenty of advantages, but they’re only going to get customers out here if they can get things worked out with the FAA in a way that allows those customers the freedom to operate,” Goff said.
Any focus on suborbital point-to-point travel is premature, Goff advised. The technology needed to support that spaceport activity, “while not truly impossible, is also really, really hard,” and is not going to happen anywhere near as soon as is being presented, he said.
Even if the Colorado spaceport idea comes to fruition, Goff added, the focus on horizontal takeoff and landing vehicles is going to exclude several vertical takeoff and landing (VTVL) companies, like Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace.
“If Colorado could find a way to accommodate VTVL companies as well, that would be even better … and could likely bring some of that business to the state as well,” Goff said.
The prospect of a Colorado spaceport is a healthy signal, said Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, which oversees Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.
“I think it is an excellent sign for the commercial space industry that we are seeing great interest in additional spaceport development projects,” Anderson said. “Our experience is relevant to building a spaceport literally from the ground up. Others may have a different experience in repurposing existing facilities.”