Commercial space tourism was dealt a setback in November when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo tragically exploded in California’s Mojave Desert killing one pilot and badly injuring the other.
Virgin were preparing to send the first would-be private astronauts into the atmosphere in 2015, but this is likely to be put back while an investigation takes place.
One thing for certain though is that as shocking as the incident was to the watching world, it has not dampened the belief in space tourism, with potential operators continuing to test spacecraft and build commercial spaceports across the globe.
Indeed, the US alone currently has nine fully licensed spaceports with a tenth set to follow, while others are being constructed or planned on almost every continent.
In many cases these new spaceports are located either close to or actually at commercial airports, such as Spaceport Sweden next to Kiruna Airport; the proposed complex at Houston’s Ellington Airport; and Caribbean Spaceport at Curaçao International Airport.
We take a closer look at all of them and a few other high-profile spaceport developments below.
Europe’s gateway to space is Spaceport Sweden, situated 100 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, in Lapland, nestled in the land of the midnight sun and Northern Lights.
The facility is referred to as a ‘hybrid spaceport’ as it lies next to Kiruna Airport, where 200,000 commercial airline passengers were handled in 2013.
In existence since 2007, although it has yet to handle a space flight, Spaceport Sweden has signed an agreement with Virgin Galactic to be its first location outside the US to operate space tourism flights.
CEO, Karin Nilsdotter, says the market is expanding fast and the way the new space vehicles fly are a “game changer”.
“Aviation was commercialised 100 years ago, and that is what is happening with space. Space is no longer a race between nations – it is a race between businessmen and women,” Nilsdotter explains.
“The estimation of the value of commercial space tourism flights is $1.6 billion over the first 10 years, so it is going to be huge.”
In her view, in order to be successful spaceports must operate a range of commercial services as space flights form only part of it.
And in line with this philosophy Spaceport Sweden currently offers educational space talks, technical visits, a space flight preparation programme and a space camp in addition to commercial flights to view the Northern Lights.
Spaceflights can also present a huge opportunity for regional airports outside big cities as they can be a catalyst for growth, notes Nilsdotter.
“These space planes cannot fly in very occupied airspace so need access to under-populated areas where regionals are situated,” she enthuses.
“I have no doubt that commercial space travel will attract a lot of jobs and we will see more spaceports being built in the regions, for sure.”
The passionate spaceport CEO is on the list to go with Virgin Galactic, and her own interest has been fuelled by chats with former astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
“I think space tourism flights will have a big impact on humanity, and it is so exciting for the world,” she muses.
Most spaceports are being built in the desert or on isolated land away from urbanisation, but the first urban space gateway is close to being given the go-ahead near Houston, Texas.
Located 15 minutes from downtown at Ellington Airport, the Houston Airport System (HAS) is working with the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) to open the 10th commercial spaceport in the US.
HAS is waiting for a launch site license from the Federal Aviation Administration–Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-AST), and plans to submit an application in late 2014/early 2015.
Ellington now handles military flights but operated commercial flights until 2004, and has the infrastructure geared for a successful spaceport, according to HAS business development manager, Arturo Machuca.
“With ample acreage available for business development, a strong cluster of aerospace companies already in the area and a robust transportation network, Ellington Airport has all the requirements necessary to establish a dynamic commercial spaceport,” Machuca explains.
He says operations involving space vehicle assembly, the launching of micro-satellites, astronaut training, zero gravity experimentation and space tourism will also take place
Houston handles more than 50mppa passengers through its gateways and is connected to 170 different routes, so is a perfect location for tourists to be launched into space, in Machuca’s view.
Machuca enthuses: “We believe this will be an excellent location for space tourism and for people to have their ‘space experience’. Houston is an attractive destination and we will be very proud to become the first urban spaceport.”
Houston Spaceport aims to create diverse revenue channels to boost funds, such as housing aerospace firms and an education facility, and it will build a state-of-the-art terminal and hangars for operators.
No longer a dream, commercial space flights from point-to-point are nearing reality, something clearly exciting Machuca who says in 10 to 15 years flights via space will take two hours from Houston to London.
But he notes there is a need for a network of spaceports around the world, and it is only the start of the development of them.
For those wanting to be launched into space from a paradise island, there is Caribbean Spaceport on the Netherlands Antilles island of Curaçao.
The spaceport’s mission is to service the “exciting” new and upcoming personal spaceflight market, and the scientific and expanding low earth orbit (LEO) small satellite market.
Based on current planning and developments, Caribbean Spaceport is confident it will meet its aim to serve the different markets, and is set up to launch flights at Curaçao Airport soon.
The creation is part of Curaçao Airport Partner/Curaçao Airport Holding NV’s bid to transform Curaçao International Airport into the world’s first regional, self-sufficient “green airport city” powered by solar energy and cooled by a seawater air conditioning system.
It will include 200 hectares of land set aside for commercial, retail, residential and research development offering over one million square metres of rentable space for manufacturing and retail shops, logistics, offices, hotels, restaurants, R&D laboratories and warehouses.
Curaçao’s ambitious airport city development plan is believed to come with a $1.8 billion price tag, based on annual investments of $30 million per annum over the next few decades.
Talking late last year, commercial development manager, Simon Kloppenburg, explains: “It will create around 1,400 jobs, which is not bad for a small island with a population of under 150,000 people,” and adds many people have already signed up for the XCOR Aerospace-operated flights into space.
The number of spaceports around the world is growing, and in years to come there is likely to be a wider global network.
In the US alone, there is Spaceport America, New Mexico; Mojave Spaceport, California; Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), Virginia; Kodiak Launch Complex, Alaska; Oklahoma Spaceport, Oklahoma; Corn Ranch Spaceport, Texas; Cecil Field Spaceport, Jacksonville, Florida; Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (Space Florida); and the latest, Midland International Airport in Texas.
It appears as if every region is preparing to send tourists into space, and in Asia, Spaceport Malaysia, located in Selangor, Malaysia, 80km north of Kuala Lumpur, will become a centre of commercial spaceflight for research, education and space tourism, and a terminal and 4km runway are being constructed.
Over in Dubai the $265 million Ras Al Khaimah Spaceport is being built an hour from the city, while a $115 million investment is set for Singapore Spaceport, and in Kazakhstan there is Baikonur Spaceport, which is leased by the Russian Space Agency.
Meanwhile, earlier this year the UK announced plans for a spaceport in Scotland and has identified six sites that it believes could be used to transport tourists and satellites by 2018.
They include Stornoway Airport; Kinloss Barracks; RAF Lossiemouth; Glasgow Prestwick; RAF Leuchars; and Campbeltown Airport – although the first two currently don’t boast the 3,000m long runways needed for space travel.
Despite the setback in 2014, the space tourism market looks set to evolve, with more spaceports being constructed with futuristic terminals and facilities built to meet the needs of people travelling into space.
The race to space it seems is still firmly on track for lift-off.
There is much anticipation about the first ‘space tourism’ flight and something of a commercial ‘space race’ with sub-orbital trips to just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere being sold, albeit only to the wealthy for the time being.
Specialist operators such as Virgin Galactic, which opened Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert three years ago, and XCOR Aerospace are close to launching long-awaited flights, which have been held back by delays caused by technical and safety issues.
Virgin Galactic signed a deal with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US in May setting out how routine space missions from the spaceport will be co-ordinated with the normal air traffic control system.
Owner, Sir Richard Branson, hopes to board the first flight in 2015 from the $225 million Spaceport America, on SpaceShipTwo, which will probably fly a few times a week.
Flights are setting people back $250,000, and around 700 people have signed up to be transported more than 68 miles, to the edge of space at the so-called Karman Line.
XCOR Aerospace using its Lynx shuttle are charging $95,000 a ticket for one-to-one pilot flights to an altitude of about 38 miles, which are set to begin late next year, to what the company calls “the edge of space”.
A $100,000 ticket will take a passenger beyond the Earth’s atmosphere to 61 miles in 2016, where tourists will be able to spend up to six minutes, while the World View Experience will give passengers the opportunity to fly at 100,000ft, almost 20 miles above the Earth, from 2016, with tickets costing $70,000.
Operators planning ventures into orbit to launch tourists into space include SpaceX with its Dragon V2 spacecraft, while Boeing is building the CST-100 to transport people.