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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Plans for Future 'Spaceport Colorado' Gaining Pace

As reported by the Denver Post: Efforts to establish Spaceport Colorado — the proposed facility for the commercial space industry at Front Range Airport — are back on track after a difficult year in which the general aviation airport in Watkins went without a manager and Adams County took over its operations.

Dave Ruppel, who took the post as the 3,600-acre airport's manager less than a month ago, said Monday that Front Range's spaceport application to the Federal Aviation Administration should be completed in the next few months and submitted to the agency by spring or early summer.

The FAA then will have six months to review the application and say "yes" or "no" to a facility designed to attract high-tech research, commercial space development, and eventually the creation of a horizontal launch pad for space transport.

"If we're not a part of it, we could stand to lose our place of leadership in the space industry in Colorado," Ruppel said.

Ruppel, a retired Navy aviator who most recently headed the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Steamboat Springs, said Front Range's location 6 miles east of DIA and near major rail lines puts it in a perfect position to push forward the country's emerging commercial space sector. There are nine licensed spaceports in the United States.  

"It's a fantastic hub for aeronautics and aviation-related businesses," he said.

Adams County spokesman Jim Siedlecki said most of the "heavy lifting" — the feasibility and environmental studies for Spaceport Colorado — has been completed and that now it's just a matter of getting federal government approval for the facility. Two years ago, Spaceport Colorado secured more than $600,000 in financial support from various entities, including the Colorado Department of Transportation, Aurora and DIA. It also landed a $200,000 grant from the FAA.  

Last year, Spaceport Colorado signed a memorandum of understanding with Swiss Space Systems to have the Switzerland-based company, known as S3, locate its North American headquarters in Adams County. S3 is developing a flight system similar to what Virgin Galactic is developing with SpaceShip-Two. Instead of offering space tourism, however, the company will use its suborbital space plane to deploy small satellites. 

Ruppel said while the death of a test pilot in the Oct. 31 crash of a Virgin Galactic rocket at the Mojave Air & Space Port was tragic, it doesn't represent a setback in Front Range's efforts. He said the FAA has a rigorous licensing process for any space plane that wants to take to the air.

Adams County Commissioner Erik Hansen said space travel will face many of the same challenges air travel did in its formative years.

But keeping the spaceport concept vital in Colorado, Hansen said, is critical. And the steps the county has taken in the last 12 months to help put Front Range Airport's finances in order and hire new leadership were necessary to moving forward from here.

"What it did is create significant stability at the airport so we can really take off," he said.