31 January 2009
Other - Other (None)
Spaceport Sweden and Spaceport America
Sisters half a world apart
by G B Leatherwood
On 31 January 2009, the New Mexico-based Spaceport America (NMSA) has announced that Spaceport America now has a new “sister spaceport.” The NMSA has successfully entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with officials of Spaceport Sweden, based in Kiruna, Sweden.

According to the press release, the intent of this agreement is to increase global cooperation in the commercial space industry, promote cultural understanding, and stimulate local economic development, tourism, and education--the same motives as given by Steve Landeene, Executive Director of NMSA, for the creation of Spaceport America.

In commenting on the new MOU, Landeene said “The Swedish Spaceport Corporation and Spaceport Sweden are currently executing missions, and it’s exciting to see increasing interest and activity all over the globe for commercial spaceflight. This MOU means that both spaceports can work together to develop and promote the commercial space industry.”

Located in Kiruna, Sweden, the spaceport is the site of the Esrange Space Center (ESC), which launches sounding rockets and high altitude research balloons. The ESC also works as the test facility for new aerospace systems. The ESC then does triple-duty as the world’s busiest civil ground station for satellites.

Virgin Galactic recently signed a 20-year lease with the NMSA to house Virgin Galactic’s world headquarters and the base for SpaceShipTwo. But Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Galactic, wants Esrange to become Virgin Galactic’s second base.

Ever the optimist, Branson, told Swedish television channel TV4, “We would love to send people up to experience the northern lights from space. People will be able to spend nights in your Icehotel night time, and day time go up into space and marvel at the northern lights.” (The famed temporary Icehotel is 12 km away from Kiruna.)

Asked about a date for the first flights to be launched from New Mexico and Sweden, Branson said “The mothership is going to fly in three weeks from the Mojave Desert, and that is the mothership that takes the spaceship into space.” (NB: WhiteKnightTwo made its maiden flight 21 December 2008 from the Mojave Air and Space Port, Mojave, CA.) “The spaceship will be ready in another nine months, and then we will have nine to twelve months of extensive testing.” Branson expects flights to commence around 2012.

But although the MOU is now in place, there may still be significant hurdles to clear before any suborbital tourist flights treat passengers to the northern lights. For example, the Sweden Civil Aviation Authority requires all craft with wings become certified, even if they only fly to 100 km (62 miles). Plus, a US arms trafficking law, the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR), may prevent Space Ship Two’s US-designed rocket engines from being serviced at a facility outside the United States.

If these issues are not resolved, Branson’s estimate of a 2012 launch date from Spaceport Sweden might be much further away than he thinks.

Despite potential bad news, at least the MOU is in place, the principals are working hard to make it all come together, and a few more steps have been taken to get us across the border of the next frontier.
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G B Leatherwood 31 January 2009
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