June 9, 2016 – Pending approval by the Federal Aviation Administration’s office of commercial space transportation, Colorado could have a commercial spaceport by the end of the summer. A spaceport designation would allow the existing Front Range Airport to add FAA-licensed suborbital flight capabilities to its current General Aviation operations.
David Ruppel, Airport Director for Front Range, spoke last week at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado. He said Spaceport Colorado is envisioned as a horizontal launch facility in which FAA-licensed Suborbital Reusable Launch Vehicles (sRLV) will take off and land from existing airport runways. Spaceport Colorado will not operate vertical launch rockets or “Experimental” vehicles.
Once established, the spaceport will provide access to space for scientific research, education and space tourism in the short-term and point-to-point, high speed, suborbital transportation to other international spaceports in the long-term.
Ruppel said that despite many delays in the licensing process, he hopes to receive federal government approval for the facility within the next few months. The real challenge has been the potential spaceport’s proximity to Denver International Airport.
“It’s about six miles straight line distance,” said Ruppel. “Very close to the metropolitan area – close to the interstate and heavy rail – but also right under Class B air space.”
The Spaceport Colorado Team has been engaged in ongoing dialogue concerning integration of the spaceport and future space vehicles into the National Airspace System. The problem is similar to those faced by air travel in its formative years – there simply is no precedent for this type of spaceport.
“It’s a new idea to do it this close to an airport and we have to demonstrate that this is safe,” said Ruppel. “The FAA is charged with protecting regular air space and this is different from being next to the coast where you can fly without other traffic. We’re spending a lot of time talking about what the profile would look like and how it could operate in the proximity of the airport.”
At the same time, industry leaders see economic potential in jointly developing DIA-Front Range Airport as a spaceport hub. Obtaining the FAA Spaceport License could help define what a 21st-century commercial spaceport will look like.
“We hope that our experience will help smooth the path for other places in the future who have similar traffic issues,” said Ruppel.
Suborbital point-to-point flight will eventually complement America’s highly-developed air transportation system by being located on or near major commercial and transportation hubs like Denver. Commercial spaceports will support suborbital flights transporting passengers and high-priority cargo over long distances at six times the speed of current commercial airliners.
With ten currently licensed U.S. spaceports – and more in the planning or licensing stage – Spaceport Colorado would be the first spaceport established in the middle of the country and could become an integral part of this global network of developing commercial spaceports.
Realistically, it may be a decade or more before point-to-point travel takes place at Front Range Airport. The suborbital industry is still fairly new, with space vehicles in the development and testing phases. And like the early flight industry, technology and airspace control will need to mature in order to permit safe and coordinated operations from strategic transit locations.
In the meantime, having a Spaceport designation will sustain and accelerate Colorado’s existing aerospace industry by attracting high-value aerospace technology clusters that support advanced manufacturing, education and R&D industries.
“In the near-term, the Spaceport will support space tourism, space pilot training, and payload delivery – small satellites, research experiments, manufacturing,” said Ruppel. “Also space and ground vehicles, monitors, sensors and electronics, UAV’s and robotic systems.”
The state already boasts the second highest number of aerospace workers in the nation, a strong research community, and top aerospace companies, making it a logical choice for a spaceport. Several companies in Colorado are developing products and services that could utilize the spaceport, including Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser suborbital spacecraft, being built in Louisville, Colorado.
Front Range Airport is located in Watkins, Colorado. It’s unique in the Denver metropolitan area as the only general aviation airport without major nearby residential areas. With 3,600 acres of economic and technological potential, a spaceport designation has the support of industry leaders, regional economic-development groups, and state and local government.
The application process has included an environmental assessment, a safety evaluation and a business plan. An extensive noise analysis was also conducted as part of the environmental assessment. Front Range is the only general aviation facility in the Denver area without noise or over-flight problems.