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Image: Aerial view of spaceport
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An aerial view shows the Oklahoma Spaceport's 13,503-foot-long runway, which is one of the facility's selling points.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 6/13/2006 9:36:43 PM ET 2006-06-14T01:36:43

The Federal Aviation Administration has given its OK for commercial spaceflight operations at Oklahoma’s spaceport, a former military air base that is expected to begin hosting test flights of a new suborbital spacecraft next year.

"We are the planet's newest gateway to space," Bill Khourie, executive director of the Oklahoma Space Development Authority, told MSNBC.com after the FAA's announcement on Tuesday.

The launch site operator license, issued Monday, gives Oklahoma an edge in the nascent space tourism industry — a market also being targeted by California, New Mexico, Florida and even Wisconsin, as well as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. However, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation would have to issue separate licenses to companies wishing to operate from Oklahoma.

The most prominent Oklahoma-based suborbital company, Rocketplane Ltd., is working on the final step for completing its license application and is on target to begin "a fairly extensive flight test program" in 2007, said David Urie, the company's executive vice president. The current schedule calls for passenger spaceflights to start in 2008, he told MSNBC.com.

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Urie said he was "elated" to hear that the proposed spaceport, on the grounds of the former Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base near Burns Flat, had received its license. "It's extremely important, because it means we have a place to fly," Urie said. "It was an absolute necessity for our plans that they've achieved this licensing."

Smoothing the way
Rocketplane's spaceship — a small commercial plane modified to carry a rocket engine as well as a jet engine — would take off and land horizontally, like a conventional plane. The difference would come in the middle of the flight, when the rocket motor would power the craft above 62 miles (100 kilometers) in altitude. At that height, paying passengers would be able to see the black sky of space above a curving Earth, and feel a few minutes of weightlessness.

Rocketplane projects that the price tag for such a suborbital spaceflight would be about $200,000.

Urie said the procedure that the Oklahoma spaceport went through might smooth the way for Rocketplane's license application.

"Interestingly enough, we supported the site licensing with data that were relevant to both the environmental [impact] and safety," he said. "The work that has been done in that regard is to some extent applicable to our licensing."

Carole Flores, manager of the licensing and safety division at the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, agreed that Rocketplane could benefit from the spaceport's work. "It really will smooth the environmental process, because the major environmental work has been done under the launch site operator license," she told MSNBC.com. "Something that will be a little more difficult is the risk assessment."

Once Rocketplane completes submitting all the data in support of its application, the FAA has 180 days to issue or deny a launch license.

Oklahoma's site license clears the spaceport for suborbital flights in a 70-by-170-mile (60-by-150-nautical-mile) corridor of the prairie, with clearance for launch vehicles to rise to the fringe of  outer space. "It's a clearance from the ground up to infinity," Khourie said.

The FAA said it would conduct safety inspections of the spaceport at least once a year, and the license would have to be renewed after five years.

Several ventures on the rise
Burns Flat is the sixth commercial spaceport approved by the FAA, joining Vandenberg Air Force Base and the Mojave Airport in California; Cape Canaveral in Florida; the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia; and Kodiak Island in Alaska. Yet another spaceport is under development in New Mexico, but the FAA has not yet issued a license for that facility.

The next few years are likely to see the rise of several suborbital space tourism ventures. British-based Virgin Galactic, which is backed by Virgin Group tycoon Richard Branson, has said it plans to begin space tourism operations in Mojave and at New Mexico's Southwest Regional Spaceport by 2010. The Virgin space planes are being developed by Mojave-based Scaled Composites — the same company that built SpaceShipOne, the world's first privately developed spaceship.

Virginia-based Space Adventures, meanwhile, is involved in deals for the development of spaceports in Singapore and Ras al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates, and is said to be looking for spaceport facilities in the United States as well. Still more companies — including Blue Origin, PlanetSpace, XCOR Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace — are gearing up for potential operations spread from Texas to Canada.

Unlike many of the spaceports currently under development, the Oklahoma facility would not have to share its airspace with military planes, Khourie noted. "We are the first spaceport facility licensed to fly in the national airspace system, clear of military operating areas or restricted government flight corridors," he said.

He also touted the spaceport's 13,503-foot-long runway, augmented by 1,000 feet of overruns at each end. Such a spaceport is ready-made for flights to and from outer space, he said. Existing buildings could serve to house space planes, manufacturing facilities and even a passenger terminal. "We're ready to go right now, and of course we're looking at ways to make it better," Khourie said.

In addition to Rocketplane's development operations, the spaceport is hosting research, development and test facilities for Armadillo Aerospace, the Texas-based rocket company backed by video-game pioneer John Carmack, said Khourie. And he anticipated still more business to come.

Khourie said XCOR Aerospace, an FAA-licensed spacecraft developer based in Mojave, "has expressed an interest in possibly using our facility also."

"Now that we have demonstrated that we have our license, we will receive more inquiries," he said.

Commercial space race?
Over the past few months, there's been a lot of talk about a commercial race among spaceport operators — but Khourie said he saw his contemporaries in other states as "colleagues and team members" rather than rivals. "I think the vision is that we all hope someday we'll have vehicles operating from one spaceport to another, and we all want this field to be successful," Khourie said.

Stuart Witt, manager of California's Mojave Airport, seconded that sentiment.

"I'm real proud of 'em," he told MSNBC.com. "This industry is going to need a number of traction points across the country if this is going to work."

He said Oklahoma's biggest challenge may be to get additional state support to get the Burns Flat spaceport ready for flight.

Witt and his allies in California's state government are working to get approval for a $11 million loan package to upgrade Mojave's facilities, and he said the proposal is "in the governor's budget lap right now." Witt said he'd also like to get more federal support for the infant suborbital spaceflight industry.

"It wouldn't hurt if a couple more spaceports were with us," Witt said.

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