Spaceports are popping up over the country as private companies bet on a surge in commercial spaceflight and equally eager states maneuver to make room for them.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has licensed 10 spaceports in seven states since 1996 — two in California, two in Florida, two in Texas and one each in Oklahoma, Alaska, New Mexico and Virginia.
According to the FAA, any U.S. citizen or entity can apply for a spaceport, or what it characterizes as a “launch and reentry site.” In evaluating applications, the FAA determines whether proposed spaceports would jeopardize public health and safety, property, national security, foreign policy interests or U.S. international obligations.
The administration stresses that it “does not provide any incentives towards generation of spaceport proposals, nor does the FAA make any proactive determinations of where spaceports should be located.”
Dr. Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska College of Law, explains that existing spaceports in the United States have been used for government or military missions. In recent years, private launch service providers have also been able to offer their services to launch unmanned payloads and telecommunications satellites from these locations.
He points out that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s prerogative has always been manned spaceflight, but since the Space Shuttle was retired and until a “replacement” is identified, the U.S. government has no capacity for human spaceflight.
“The current focus is clearly for those private commercial operators to launch humans into outer space, either into suborbital ‘space tourism’ trajectories, such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and perhaps XCOR, or for servicing the International Space Station, both with cargo and soon with astronauts, such as Space-X, Blue Origin and Boeing,” von der Dunk said.
The Mojave Air and Space Port in California became the first inland site to apply for and receive a FAA spaceport designation in 2004. Since then, it has been used by private companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and Stratolaunch Systems.
Stuart Witt, the former CEO and general manager, contends that the Mojave Air and Space Port became a “bit of enigma” in the industry since space operations in the United States have historically been conducted at coastal locations, such as Vanderberg Air Force Base in California, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and Cape Canaveral in Florida.
He says that since these spaceports are associated with large sea ranges and low human density, they are less likely to impact the uninvolved public on the ground.
“It’s sort of a new day for the spaceport mentality to pop up at various locations around the continent and around the globe,” Witt said.
So why did Witt set out to create Mojave? No. 1, he says, he had clients who wanted to fly to space from the high desert in California, and No. 2, the only Americans who went to space on an American vehicle did it there during the Ansari X Prize suborbital spaceflights in 2004.
“We proved that you didn’t need a hundred thousand people working for a federal agency that didn’t put an American in space that year,” Witt said. “[Scaled Composites] did it with a small company of 30 people, and it created a movement.”
In recent years, spaceports have been supported by state governments that have offered tax incentives and investment, as well as new laws that allow for the growth of the commercial spaceflight industry.
Von der Dunk points out that states with a history in spaceflight, such as California and Florida, are trying to compensate for the continuing decrease in NASA and other government-driven spending on space by preparing for the gradual transition to private commercial spaceflight.
He adds that states like New Mexico and Oklahoma offer available open land, while others like Virginia and Colorado can provide unused airports or underused spaceports.
“Most of them try to compensate for gradual dwindling or at least uncertain federal space budgets by attracting the private commercial spaceflight industry, in the assumption that it will grow into a really mature and substantial industry fairly soon,” he said.
Michael Listner, an attorney and founder of Space Law & Policy Solutions in New Hampshire, agrees that many states see the commercial spaceflight industry as a potential economic boon and want to be among the first to get involved. Several of them have enacted laws designed to attract companies by limiting their potential liability.
In May, Georgia became the most recent state to enact its own Space Flight Act. According to its law, once participants sign a written agreement that advises them of all inherent risks, the spaceflight operator’s liability is limited if an unfortunate event occurs.
“Georgia had the impetus to pass its law, saying that if we don’t do it now, Alabama is going to move before us, and they’re going to build a spaceport before us,” Listner said. “So you have competition between states, and that’s an impetus.”
However, Listner contends, states that have attracted and supported spaceports also face significant risks.
He says they have invested a lot of money into commercial spaceflight facilities and “basically roll the dice” that they will turn into viable businesses. As an example, he points to Spaceport America in New Mexico, describing it as a “huge bet by the government,” which hoped that suborbital flights would generate revenue for the state.
“Where is the business?” Listner said. “Where are the spaceports? Virgin Galactic had planned to be flying tourist flights by now and making a lot of money. But it really hasn’t materialized yet.
“When it comes to spaceports, there are a lot of people who either made a very foolish bet or a very shrewd bet that it’s actually going to pay off.”
Listner adds that even if the FAA approves a spaceport and the state offers financial incentives and other support, residents that live nearby may voice concerns or even file claims over safety, noise and the negative impact to their property values in the future.