17 October 2001
Features - Tourism (Good)
Start Your Own Spaceport
It's not just where you go, it's where you start from, too
by G B Leatherwood
by G. B. Leatherwood

We want to believe that space tourism is going to happen just after the next rocket launch. Even though only Mr. Dennis Tito has been to the International Space Station ( ISS) as a tourist, space tourism promises to become a billion dollar industry--just as soon as we have the vehicles to carry us to the ISS, a Lunar Hotel, or some other island of luxury and adventure floating in the ocean of space. A hotel orbiting the Earth with a sunrise and sunset every ninety minutes would produce sights we have seen only on television or in motion pictures. Donning a special suit and stepping out of the airlock onto the surface of the moon would be a once in a lifetime adventure worth every penny of the year's wages it might cost.

Right now we have the science, mathematics, engineering, and manufacturing capabilities to produce vehicles capable of lifting the payload of fifty or so tourists, their life support, and their baggage (including cameras, of course) into space. But not much has been said about one of the least sexy sides of this fantasy: Where do we take off from, and where do we land when we come back?

At the moment, precious few such places exist. Because of their military and government assignments, the United States, European, Asian, or Russian launch facilities are neither suitable nor sufficient for space tourism.

And where should these "spaceports" be? In the paper "Study on Airport Services for Space Tourism"[i], it is suggested, with full documentation, that existing airports would be ideal candidates, primarily because they already have most of the necessary facilities. The extensive ground space required for passenger air travel and freight shipment--runways, terminal buildings, fuel storage and maintenance facilities--is already in place. As vertical takeoff and landing vehicles will not require as much space as runways, spaceports will only need portions of existing facilities.

Even so, unlike the usual airport noise, the thunder of departing vehicles might, as is the case in Cape Kennedy, shake the ground for miles around; five takeoffs a day would disturb the peace and tranquility of any neighborhood. The clouds of superheated steam from each launch might present a problem, as well as the possibility of accidents like the capsule fire in the early US Apollo program, the Challenger tragedy, and other mishaps around the world. But all these issues are no more frightening than the early barnstorming flights must have been, and the benefits still far outweigh the risks.

On a worldwide basis, profits from construction, maintenance, and operation of spaceports could rival any major developmental projects undertaken so far. Existing airports could lease out their facilities to spacecraft launch, maintenance, and landing operations much as commercial airports do for airlines today. Entire cities could be established to service spaceport employees and their families. Support industries generally locate near the source of their business, so parts, repair, development, and testing facilities could find homes nearby. Communication, guidance, and emergency networks would be needed, thus increasing the population around the spaceports. Sound familiar? Not a whole lot different from present-day airports.

If new facilities, built, staffed, and operated by private individuals are the answer, where should they be? How many should there be? How far apart should they be? Who is going to have oversight responsibility? Lots of serious questions, the answers to which will emerge as the progression toward routine space flight occurs.

One suggestion for location in the United States is the state of Nevada, for example. This state offers miles of open, level terrain, major highway and rail access, and clear skies nearly year around. The population is sparse and concentrated in a few areas. Other similar locations around the world would be just as suitable, and there is room for all.

There is a grassroots movement to turn land in the area of Elko, Nevada (approximately 230 miles west of Salt Lake City and about 320 miles west of Reno), into a spaceport. Local city councils and county commissioners, plus the director of the Economic Diversity Authority near have mostly responded with, "Hmmm--never thought of that!" However, one city council is in the midst of a long-range planning exercise, and the mayor directed the city manager to bring this idea to the board. The idea is being taken seriously.

Space tourism will depend on easily accessible, privately owned and operated facilities separate from government or the military. Nagatomo, et. al[ii]., have proposed that eventually 300 such facilities around the world, launching five ships a day with fifty paying passengers each, could provide transportation for 750,000 people a year, far less than existing airlines but vastly more than the one tourist so far. Like early aviation, many locations will be needed to satisfy the desire to travel--not to Detroit or London or Tokyo, but to the stars.

[i] "Study on Airport Services for Space Tourism" by Makoto Nagatomo, Takumi Hanada, Yoshihiro Naruo, and Patrick Q Collins. Presented to the 6th International Conference of Pacific Societies ( ISCOPS formerly PISSTA) to be held from December 6 to 8 in Marina del Rey, CA. USA.

[ii] Ibid.
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G B Leatherwood 17 October 2001
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