Front Range Airport would be launch spot for space vehicles
After a five-year process from ideation to application, Spaceport Colorado inches closer to a possible licensure.
Governor John Hickenlooper first announced Colorado’s intentions of adding a spaceport to the Front Range Airport in December 2011. Now, Spaceport Colorado is one step closer to a reality.
“We’re the largest private-sector aerospace workforce in the nation,” said Barry Gore, president and CEO of Adams County Economic Development. “If we want to maintain that leading position in aerospace, we’re going to need to have all the facilities that industry needs to be successful.”
In the privately and publicly funded space industry, Colorado is second (trailing California) as the leading space state. Gore explained that Colorado’s thriving aerospace sector tends to go unnoticed, and he’s hoping Spaceport Colorado will change that.
“Most Coloradans don’t have any idea because we don’t launch anything from here,” he said. But if the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) grants the spaceport licensure, companies could begin to occupy the airport to research and launch space activity projects.
Engineering firm HDR, Inc. was hired nearly five years ago to put together a comprehensive application, outlining a business plan, technical analysis and environmental assessment, which was submitted to the FAA in January of this year. Since then, Front Range Airport manager Dave Ruppel has been fielding questions coming from the FAA as they work through their internal review process.
One initial concern was to find a workable solution to the spaceport existing in nearby airspace to Denver International Airport (DIA), which they did. “(Air traffic control doesn’t) feel it will have any impact on DIA or the national airspace system,” Ruppel said.
The Spaceport has been cleared for horizontal launch, meaning the space vehicles will take off the same way an airplane does, as opposed to vertical launch, how rockets normally shoot directly up into the air. This isn’t a big change from The Front Range Airport’s general aviation responsibilities, which they will continue to operate, Ruppel confirmed.
An economic turbo boost
Spaceport Colorado will create a cutting-edge aerospace industry asset, bringing new business opportunities to the state and continuing to fuel the aerospace economy.
“It’s the economic development opportunities that grow with establishing something as a spaceport,” Metro Denver’s Director of Aerospace and Aviation Vicky Lea said. “For us, the spaceport is the next logical step to round out the space infrastructure as an aerospace state.”
A statewide initiative, Adams County would reap noticeable economic benefits from this project, such as bringing jobs and income to the area.
“What we’re really focused on is we want more jobs north of I-70,” Gore said. “A lot of Adams County residents commute to other places to go to work.”
Additionally, any company that chooses to occupy the spaceport will pay property taxes directly to Adams County, in addition to state taxes and sales taxes.
“Our intent is to try to develop and encourage high-tech businesses, specifically focused on space, to locate in this area,” Ruppel said. “One of the big businesses that is very important to the Colorado space industry is the small satellite or cube satellite business.”
While Ruppel couldn’t reveal many specifics on potential business relations, he has been in touch with space technology company Sierra Nevada Corp. about possible partnerships.
It’s improbable that Colorado residents will know who is occupying the port, if the licensure is granted.
“Most aerospace companies are competitive,” Gore explained. “It’s likely that they would fence their facilities and create a space where they can do their work privately.” However, the FAA would regulate all activity.
“It’s a big payroll for Colorado, and any wins we can talk about, you’ll be hearing about it,” Gore said.
Five years in the making
From county commissioners to state representatives, this project has involved many players and has proven to be arduous.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us, but it has not been easy,” Adams County Commissioner Jan Pawlowski said. “In the (2 1/2) years that I’ve served, it has been at the top of our list—and it’s taken a lot of time.”
Gore has been present throughout the entire process from ideation to submitting the final rounds of the application to the FAA.
“An aerospace company came to Front Range Airport and said to the airport authority, ‘You know you would be a great place for a spaceport,’ “ he remembered. “And we said, ‘What’s a spaceport?’ ”
Now, people such as Gore, Ruppel and Lea discuss opportunities for small satellite companies and static rocket testing facilities.
“We have lots of research projects from our research universities and labs, as well as medical research payloads that would like to get access to suborbital travel,” Gore said. “We need to build that facility, and the private sector needs to develop the space vehicles.”
Pawlowski is also looking forward to the opportunity to bring students to the port and teach comprehensive lessons about all types of aviation.
While the timeline is entirely in the hands of the FAA at this point, Colorado has high hopes for receiving the licensure fairly soon. The next step is for the FAA to release the environmental assessment for public comment, and once that happens they will have 180 days to either accept or deny the license.
“We think we will see a response a little more quickly,” Ruppel said. “
We could still hear about the license before the end of the year—our hope is, at least.”