All around the country, from Virginia to Alaska and all points in between, new spaceports are popping up to support the burgeoning private space industry. Now, the federal government may be ready to throw some fuel on that fire.
In April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Federal Aviation Authorization bill that the Senate will begin debate within weeks. Tucked inside the FAA bill is an amendment (H. Amend. 565) that would “require a study on possible funding options for a potential federal grant program for spaceport activities.”
In other words, Congress could pony up some grant money to support emerging spaceports and create a new office devoted to easing their birth pains. Senators want to send the bill to President Trump before the August recess (a responsible thing to do since, the current FAA authorization expires in September.) The spaceport support has a good chance of survival. There are other, higher-profile issues for Senators to chew over in the FAA bill. In the House, only amendment lead sponsor Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va) and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) spoke about it, both in favor. It passed by a bipartisan voice vote. “This amendment will strengthen the nation’s competitiveness in this nascent industry,” Larsen said, “and offer us a better understanding of how we can maintain a robust and resilient network of space transportation infrastructure.”
Pedal to the Metal
The amendment requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to create something called the National Spaceports Policy Report, which “evaluates the national security and civil space launch demands; proposes policies designed to ensure a robust and resilient orbital and suborbital spaceport infrastructure.” Basically, it would advise Congress how to spend the spaceport money.
Different spaceports have different needs. Vertical launch pads will want money to prepare more than new launchpads—they need finds for bridges and roads to support launch activity. Airports that want to be licensed to host air-launched space rockets and accommodate landing spaceplanes could need money for runway extensions, handling pressurized propellants, and new security. The DOT report would also review “the development and investments made by international competitors.” These are weighty words, and the world has taken notice. “This administration is going pedal to the metal on space,” one official from a foreign launch provider tells PopMech. “The House just made an opening gambit for allowing for a licensing regime that approves all applications.”
For a preview of what this federal support might look like, we can examine the public investments in spaceports so far, which largely have been made at the state level. “State spaceports have become increasingly important elements of our national space launch infrastructure,” Comstock said.
She’s referring to entities like Space Florida and the Mid-Atlantic Spaceport in Virginia, which directly operate and rent space facilities and launchpads. These will certainly have a clear bead on any new pot of federal money. State delegations protect their spaceports, with no better example than the way Virginia politicians bullied NASA to rebuild a state spaceport launch pad after an explosion.
Not every spaceport is operated by a state agency, and these too could get public money, as has happened in Texas. That state government has ben in the vanguard of supporting spaceports. It now has more licensed by the FAA than any other state. In 2013, the Texas legislature appropriated $15 million to the Spaceport Trust Fund. Waiting in the wings were a pair of development corporations — one representing SpaceX, and another representing the airport in town of Midland — that exist only to solicit and accept taxpayer money. SpaceX got $13 million to help build its still-unfinished spaceport in Brownsville, near the Mexican border. The state sent the remaining $2 million to the Midland Spaceport Development Corporation (MDC). That entity used the money to entice its anchor tenant, XCOR, to move to Midland from Mojave, Calif. MDC spent around $11 million on the deal, with the state taxpayer bump used to cover a $1.5 million refurbishment of a hangar to house XCOR’s reuseable, suborbital spaceplane called Lynx.
Sometimes high-risk investments go wrong. XCOR went bankrupt in 2017, owing more than $27 million to creditors including the MDC. The money had been paid upfront and without collateral. That is the nature of backing high-tech, high risk endeavors.
Despite the risks, however, states want to get in on in this emerging industry. An FAA spaceport designation can be helpful even if nothing flies or lands. It’s a badge meant to lure aerospace companies to regional airports and nearby business parks.
Support From the Top
Make no mistake: While we’re talking about federal dollars supporting spaceports, it is state politicians from states with spaceports who are driving this effort. Another amendment in the FAA Authorization Act shows this plainly. This one, sponsored by several members from Florida, Maryland and Virginia, establishes an “Office of Spaceports” that would assist spaceport licensing and re-licensing. It would also, tellingly, develop “policies to support infrastructure investment in those facilities.” The Office of Spaceports would be steering federal money to state spaceports, and no one knows how much or what the process would be, and if it would be bound by the USDOT and GAO advice on who to spend it on.
You may wonder where NASA is in all of this. While he was in Congress in 2016, the recently named head of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, authored the American Space Renaissance Act in 2016. It contained the idea of Spaceport Office. He represented Oklahoma, home to the languishing spaceport in Burns Flats, designated in 2006 and virtually unused since. Or, as the website declares on its home page: “There is room for the aerospace industry to grow at the Oklahoma Air & Space Port.”
The bill did not reach a vote, but the idea is back again. With Bridenstine at the helm of commercial-friendly NASA, you can expect the idea of spaceport grants to earnsupport from the top of the agency.
First published by:Popular Mechanics USA