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Infrastructure

Spaceport Infrastructure Still an Unknown Frontier

OCT 24, 2012 5:51pm ET
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WASHINGTON — Spaceports are popping up all over the United States, as both existing airports and brand-new facilities position themselves to profit from a new age of commercial space travel and transport, but the industry is still in its infancy and faces significant challenges.

Currently eight facilities in the U.S., some of which are bond-funded or are owned by bond-issuing authorities, are licensed for space launches by the Federal Aviation Administration’s office of commercial space transportation.

The facilities that are leading the way are the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Va., the Cecil Field Spaceport in Jacksonville, Fla., Spaceport Florida at Cape Canaveral, Spaceport Oklahoma in Burns Flat, Okla., Spaceport America in New Mexico, Mojave Air and Spaceport in Mojave, Calif., Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompac, Calif., and the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Those facilities have been planned and financed with an eye to the future. See slideshow.

The idea is that, especially with the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the day is fast approaching when space tourism and transport will be big business, and spaceports capable of handling vertical rocket launches and returning craft will be in position to reap economic benefits for their regions and investors.

These launchpads could also become centers for commercial satellite launches, educational trips sponsored by universities, and other possibilities, causing the FAA to estimate increased demand for them.

The agency annually produces a forecast for space launch demand, and it has been growing. The 2012 report projects a yearly demand for 29.1 commercial space launches worldwide from this year through 2021. That number was 28.6 in the 2011 forecast, and 27.6 in the 2010 projection.

The first U.S. commercial spaceport, Spaceport America, signed a 20-year lease with billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic in 2009. Construction of the more than $200 million facility was supported by $100 million of New Mexico oil and gas severance-tax bonds and $51 million of sales-tax revenue bonds issued by a spaceport district comprising the local Sierra and Doña Ana counties.

In September, the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, a body legislatively empowered to issue debt, reached a memorandum of understanding with Orbital Sciences Corp. pledging state support for improvements at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. The MARS facility will play host to a series of 10 rocket launches under the agreement, and the VCSFA will retain the improved facility for use by future customers.

Jacksonville’s Cecil Field Spaceport, owned by the Jacksonville Airport Authority, obtained its spaceport designation in August. As with Spaceport America and MARS before it, Cecil’s new space-age bona fides generated excitement about the potential for future economic growth.

“It is critical that we continue to focus on, and invest in, infrastructure projects that will directly benefit our state’s economy,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott after signing into law the facility’s designation as a spaceport. “Having Cecil Field designated as a spaceport will play a major role in the continued development of Florida’s aerospace and aviation industries and will continue to keep our economy heading in the right direction.”

While both the FAA and private firms agree that demand for commercial spaceports is likely to increase in coming years, the industry is still so young that the potential for growth variance is huge and the unknowns are vast.

“We are dealing with an industry which has not yet begun to operate,” said Derek Webber, director of commercial space flight consultant firm Spaceport Associates in Damariscotta, Me. “It will probably not begin before 2014. How many spaceports will be needed to satisfy the market once it gets started? No one knows.”

A revenue and demand study produced by the Tauri Group in Alexandria, Va., produced three divergent 10-year scenarios, including a “constrained” forecast, a “baseline” scenario, and a “growth” estimate. The baseline estimate, extrapolated from today’s consumer demand and research budgets, predicts $600 million of revenue from suborbital space flights over a decade. The constrained estimate, based on a possible drop in demand, cuts that in half to $300 million.

The growth estimate reflects an increase in demand, and hits $1.6 billion of revenue. The study also notes the possibility that demand could react to “game-changing unknowns,” such as price reductions, new research, sponsorships and other variables.

“Demand for suborbital flights is sustained and appears sufficient to support multiple providers,” the study concludes.

Webber said it’s impossible to know now whether states and localities that undertake the cost of building spaceport infrastructure will see a payoff any time soon. Spaceport America has pledged to be self-sustaining through the collection of tourism revenue from visitors popping by to take a look at the launch pad. Some of the facilities are not yet at the imminent operations stage, and their future is even more uncertain.

A Moody’s Investors Service analyst said said Cecil Field remains a general aviation airport that hopes to become a spaceport someday. Even knowing when the economic payoff has been reached could prove tough, according to Webber.

“We shall have to monitor a whole range of items,” he said. “How many people are employed at the spaceport? How many were employed in building it? What impact has the spaceport had on the education in neighboring schools? Do the kids become more interested in science, math and technology? How much money do the rich space tourists spend in the region of the spaceport in goods and services? How many family and friends do the space tourists bring with them when they do their trip? How long do they spend in the spaceport region before, during and after the flight? How successful is the new spaceport at attracting terrestrial tourists who come merely to visit for the day, and are not necessarily associated with any specific space tourism flight?”

There is a small amount of federal money available for spaceport development. The FAA’s space transportation infrastructure matching grants program provided $500,000 for the initial development of three possible new spaceports in Colorado, Hawaii and California.

The majority of costs, though, will still fall on state and local entities and their private sector partners. The grants can fund up to 50% of a project, but require that at least 10% of development dollars come from the private sector.

“Those states that are supporting these developments are betting on a future which is based on known American values,” Webber said. “Pushing boundaries, taking risks, making a buck, looking forwards rather than backwards. The citizens of New Mexico who have supported the building of Spaceport America are doing this to ensure that their children and grandchildren in this poor part of the country will have something exciting in their futures instead of simply tumbleweed.”

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