The authorities responsible for Colorado’s Front Range Airport (http://www.ftg-airport.com/) seeking to certify the airport facilities for suborbital spaceflight. I met David (Dave) E. Ruppel, who is the Air and (future) Spaceport Director. He explained that this certification will allow suborbital vehicles to operate at Spaceport Colorado (http://spaceportcolorado.com/) much in the same way airplanes do. Suborbital spaceflight has been considered by FAA as an experimental activity and granted certification to a number of spaceports on that basis. However Colorado Spaceport wants to go a step further, combining general aviation activities with suborbital flight, confronting FAA with a new set of issues that had not emerged at the time the first wave of certification was granted. An additional consideration in the certification process is that Colorado Spaceport will be close to Denver International Airport, the 11th busiest airport in the world.
Dave Ruppel explained that, although there are not yet any certified suborbital vehicles, the way in which they will operate is well known. Virgin Galactic seems close to having its vehicle certified; Colorado spaceport certification request is based on what is known about the performance of Virgin Galactic’s and other experimental suborbital vehicles. In essence, unlike normal airplanes, suborbital craft will not be able to hold, but they are able to carry out approaches, landing and departures procedures similar to those of airplanes. In the first instance, suborbital vehicles would be certified to operate under visual flight rules (VFR) conditions.
In Dave Ruppel’s opinion, space tourism is probably the most immediate use for these types of vehicles and will serve to further perfect technology. However, payload delivery will be perhaps commercially more important than tourism to this type of business in a not too distant future. The generalised use of CubeSats will generate demand for smaller, more frequent and less expensive launchers. Research activities may also benefit from suborbital flight opportunities. In the medium term, suborbital vehicles may serve for training astronauts. Ultimately, suborbital vehicles will be able to transport passengers or cargo from point to point. Industry seems increasingly interested in developing hypersonic flight possibilities. It is reasonable to expect that within 10 years technology will be sufficiently mature for cost-effective suborbital point-to-point travel.
I asked Mr Ruppel if there will be business for the growing number of spaceports. Mr Ruppel believes that different spaceports will serve different needs. Colorado Spaceport will have certain comparative advantages, such as the proximity to a large airport facility. The certification sought from FAA will ensure availability of the facilities both for suborbital flight and general aviation. The certification of suborbital vehicle will require some special operational rules, which will not differ significantly from those applicable to certain military aircraft and operations. Propellant storage will require special treatment and facilities. The current thinking is that vehicles will have to be certified for the spaceport where they operate/land.
Colorado does not yet have an anchor suborbital flight operator but hopes to attract some once the certification has been obtained. The Spaceport will be one of the lines of business of the Front Range Airport, not the only one. The investment necessary to adapt existing facilities (such as building a new concrete pad and new facilities for propellant storage) are estimated at $5 million, which is a relatively small amount. The expectation is that certification and spaceport activities will enhance the attractiveness of the airport and surrounding area for all sorts of businesses.