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Va. Commercial Space Industry Poised for Takeoff

Rick Baldwin has been working toward next month's rocket launch for 10 years but may spend the liftoff in a windowless bunker.
Rick Baldwin has been working toward next month's rocket launch for 10 years but may spend the liftoff in a windowless bunker. (Ricky Carioti - Twp)

The spaceport is one of six in the United States licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. They are part of a fledgling space business that is eyeing, among other things, the future of space tourism. California has two licensed facilities; the others are in Florida, Alaska and Oklahoma.

A seventh license is in preparation for a site in New Mexico.

Billie Reed, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority and the spaceport's director, said: "The biggest thing that's coming around the corner, that's been a shot in the arm for the industry, is this whole idea of space tourism. A lot of people are, maybe, skeptical, but a lot of people are going at it big time."

He said MARS would love to host a tourist mission.

"Absolutely!" he said. "If you print anything, I would really like you to print that: Hey, guys, we can do it!"

The Wallops Island facility, about 150 miles southeast of Washington, is perfect for a launch to orbit, he said, and perfect for a trip to the international space station -- the destination of the first four space tourists. It would also be an ideal place, he said, for rapid suborbital trips across the world.

Such journeys could take place atop traditional rockets or aboard new manned rocket planes such as SpaceShipOne, which first flew to the edge of space two years ago.

There's no denying that private space travel is pricey.

Eric Anderson, president of Space Adventures, the Vienna firm that booked the first tourist flights, said the current rate is $25 million for a trip on a Russian space capsule to the space station. A two-week around-the-moon trip, planned for the future, will run $100 million. There will soon be cheaper, suborbital flights: $100,000 for about five minutes in space, he said.

But there are concerns about the future of space tourism. "How large is that market?" asked Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's Secretary of Business and Economic Development and the state's point person on the spaceport. "I really don't want to put too many economic eggs in that basket."

For now, MARS wants to offer fast, cheap, unmanned launch service for commercial and, especially, government customers. With the space shuttle scheduled for retirement in about three years, Reed said MARS could handle such things as basic resupply missions to the space station.

The spaceport has three more launches scheduled within the next year -- two for the government, one a combined government-commercial payload, Baldwin said.

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