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Image: Rocketplane XL
Rocketplane Kistler
An artist's conception shows a rocket plane rising from the Oklahoma Spaceport on a suborbital flight.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 10/18/2006 10:22:59 PM ET 2006-10-19T02:22:59

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - In the dawning competition to attract paying passengers for rides to the edge of space, rocket builders aren't the only ones racing against each other to enter the market.

If anything, the competition between spaceports is even more costly: Tens of millions of dollars are being committed to lure spaceship operators to facilities that have yet to be built.

But the spaceport race isn't just a question of beating the other guys: Spaceport managers themselves say they're looking forward to a second stage of suborbital travel, in which travelers can take rocket-powered flights from point A to point B. For that reason, spaceport authorities are interested in interoperability as well — a complex blend of cooperation and competition familiar to dot-com veterans under the term "coopetition."

Rick Homans, who heads New Mexico's Economic Development Department and also serves as chairman of the state's spaceport authority, said he and other state officials went all-out to recruit Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company that was created by British billionaire Richard Branson to follow up on 2004's successful SpaceShipOne rocket flights.

"Virgin was suddenly the brass ring," Homans recalled Wednesday during the International Symposium on Personal Spaceflight, conducted here as a prelude to this weekend's Wirefly X Prize rocket festival.

Last year, Branson agreed to make New Mexico the future home base for Virgin Galactic after New Mexico officials pledged to build a $225 million spaceport north of Las Cruces. Construction of Spaceport America is due to begin in the third quarter of 2007. Lonnie Sumpter, the spaceport authority's executive director, said he expected the facility to get its license from the Federal Aviation Administration at about the same time.

The timetable calls for construction to be completed in early 2010, Sumpter said. Virgin Galactic's current plan is to begin suborbital space service at California's Mojave Spaceport in mid-2009, then shift its main operations to New Mexico once Spaceport America is ready.

Homans acknowledged that he's encountered resistance to the idea of spending millions upon millions of dollars on a spaceport. "The big question suddenly became, 'How can you justify that kind of expense on $225 million spaceport for a small, relatively poor state like New Mexico?'"

As a counterargument, he cites the example of another corporation that got its start in New Mexico: software giant Microsoft (which is a partner in the MSNBC.com joint venture). Homans noted that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates brought the company back to his native Washington state in 1979 after dealing with a less-than-supportive business climate in Albuquerque.

"If New Mexico had at that time a different business culture, a culture that embraced entrepreneurs and new technology and new ideas, that Bill Gates might have stayed, and the history of our state would be very much different," Homans said.

Studies indicating that the space travel business could bring New Mexico $1 billion in new revenue and 5,000 new jobs by 2020 also helped Homans' case.

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Other spaceports are chasing after that kind of money as well — ranging from the FAA-approved facilities in California, Alaska, Oklahoma, Florida and Virginia to potential entrants abroad, in Singapore, Australia and the United Arab Emirates.

Stuart Witt, manager of the Mojave Spaceport, paid tribute to Homans and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for wooing Branson and other space-related companies, such as the Rocket Racing League, UP Aerospace and Starchaser Industries. He worried that the competition from other states — coupled with what he sees as California's lethargy — could pull more more aerospace companies eastward.

A plan to provide $11 million in state-backed loans for new construction at the Mojave Spaceport foundered earlier this year due to legislative inaction, and Witt said there were no current plans to revive that initiative.

On the same team
At the same time, Witt and Homans are in a sense on the same team: the Personal Spaceflight Federation, an industry group founded last year that takes in both spaceports as well as a wide range of spaceship builders.

Alex Tai, chief operating officer for Virgin Galactic, serves as the federation's chairman. He said it was essential for even rivals to cooperate in the formulation of policies for dealing with accidents and government regulations. He noted that FAA officials prefer to deal with a unified industry group on the larger issues surrounding private-sector space travel.

"They don't want to hear from 30 or 40 different organizations," Tai said.

Eventually, spaceports and spacelines could have the same relationship that airports and airlines do today — working together to make sure that rocket ships taking off from one place can land safely and reliably someplace else. Chuck Lauer, director of business development for Rocketplane Kistler, suggested that a space flier could take suborbital hops from Oklahoma to New Mexico to Mojave and back in a single afternoon.

Point-to-point pros and cons
More generally, point-to-point flights could take far less time than a traditional airplane trip — and the view would be spectacular, with a wide Earth curving beneath the black sky of space.

But there are huge technical challenges: The energy required for a point-to-point rocket flight is several times that needed for the simple up-and-down blasts contemplated by most spaceship builders. In fact, experts say a spacecraft powerful enough for point-to-point suborbital travel would  be nearly powerful enough to reach orbit.

The Mojave Spaceport's Witt said it's hard enough just to get to the edge of space and come back to point A. "We've got to get to suborbit first," he told MSNBC.com.

Then there are economic considerations: To be sure, more people would be interested in hourlong rocket flights from California to Japan than in up-and-down tourist trips. But could such an operation turn a profit? The recent extinction of the Concorde supersonic jet demonstrated that what's technologically possible doesn't always make economic sense.

On the regulatory front at least, the stage is already being set for point-to-point flights, said Herbert Bachner, manager of the FAA's Space Systems Development Division. He told MSNBC.com that no new legislation would be required to allow for rocket ships to go up from one spaceport and come down at another. Such procedures would be permitted as long as they were spelled out in licensing documents.

"It's feasible," he said. However, he said, suborbital spacelines would have to coordinate their flight plans with the people in charge of the air traffic lanes, just as today's airlines do. Being cleared for an up-and-down launch wouldn't in itself give the go-ahead for that trans-Pacific space shot.

"You'd have to do the same thing you do now," he said.

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