We are so, so close to commercial orbital tourism. We sit on the cusp of a new space age — an age of convenience rather than exploration, where anybody — really, anybody — can become an astronaut.
To date, only eight non-governmental facilities in the entire country have received FAA licensing approval to operate as spaceports. These spaceports have grown largely from former military and NASA installations — because why build a multi-million dollar launch facility when you can just buy one? But space travel (not unlike pimpin') ain't easy, and it ain't cheap — yet. This handful of pioneering spaceports aim to change that.
Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS)
NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, located on Virginia's eastern shore, was established in 1945 as an aerodynamics test-bed and orbital launch facility. In the 68 years since, more than 16,000 rockets have taken off from Wallops, including early prototypes for the Mercury Project and LADEE. These days, in addition to acting as one of NASA's two remaining launch pads, Wallops is also home to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS).
Governed by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, MARS utilises a pair of launchpads: Pad 0A, which is licensed by the FAA for delivering payloads up 11,100 pounds into Lower Earth Orbit, and Pad 0B, which supports 8,400 pound payloads and is more suited to smaller vehicles like the Minotaur IV or Minuteman rockets. It also accommodates both liquid and hybrid fuel vehicles in addition to the more conventional solid-fuels.
MARS recently hosted the inaugural launch of Orbital Sciences Corps' autonomous Cygnus cargo logistics spacecraft, aboard the company's Antares rocket. The Cygnus, a competitor to Elon Musk's Dragon Capsule, successfully launched on September 18th, 2013. Four days later it reached the ISS, docked, and delivered 1,500 pounds of supplies. [MARS Spaceport]
Picture: AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls
The California Spaceport
In operation since 1999, the California Spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, CA is the oldest licensed "Commercial Space Launch Site Operator" in America. What's more, it's the only fully commercialised facility in the country — it operates entirely without government funding.
The "Space Launch Complex 8" or SLC-8 (the area with the orange construction crane, above) is the primary launch site. It's capable of supporting both polar and ballistic launch trajectories using smaller Minotaur class boosters, but as of 2011, had only hosted a total of nine launches. [Calspace]
Picture: AP Photo/Spaceport Systems International, Bruce Fall
The Oklahoma Spaceport
Tucked away in the middle of Oklahoma's nowhere resides one of the longest runways in North America — the 4115m main drag at the Oklahoma Spaceport. That much tarmac, combined with the virtually plane-free Oklahoma skies — it's the first inland spaceport to completely avoid military and restricted airspace — this spaceport is ideally suited as a commercial facility for HTOL (Horizontal Take Off and Landing) vehicles. The Oklahoma spaceport is also home to Armadillo Aerospace, even though its lunar lander prototype is strictly a VTOL. Best of all, the OK Spaceport even features a nine-hole golf course. [OK Spaceport]
Cape Canaveral Spaceport
In addition to Wallops Island in Virginia, NASA also maintains its flight facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida. But since the demise of the shuttle program, both the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and Kennedy Space Center (KSC) have been opened up to additional commercial endeavours. Together, these facilities feature three active launch pads and two active runways for horizontal launches between them.
Launch Complex 46 and Launch Complex 20 are Cape Canaveral's primary launch platforms. LC 46 is designed to accommodate medium class rockets like the Lockheed Athena or Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Taurus class as well as ballistic missiles like the Trident II and Minuteman rockets. LC 20 on the other hand is built to handle small, suborbital launch systems such as the LiteStar, Terrier, Orion and ASAS rockets. [Space Florida - Space Ref]
Picture: AP Photo/John Raoux
America's newest spaceport is located at Cecil Airport in Jacksonville, Florida — at the site of the decommissioned Naval Air Station Cecil Field. Cecil Spaceport has only been licensed since 2010, but already operates the necessary facilities for supporting horizontally launched recoverable vehicles. The spaceport has 3810m, 2438m and 1219m long runways already and is currently developing additional taxiways and spaceport-specific facilities. The improvements should be complete by the end of the decade. [Space Florida - Jacksonville Aerospace Auth]
Picture: AP Photo/Oscar Sosa
Mojave Air & Space Port
Built at a decommissioned Navy airfield and WWII gunnery training range, the Mojave Air and Space Port has become one of the country's premiere test sites for private space vehicles. Beginning with the rotary rocket program in the early 1990's the Mojave facility has hosted some of the biggest names in commercial space travel including SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X Prize in 2004, XCOR Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, and Orbital Science Corp. [Wikipedia]
Picture: AP Photo/Laura Rauch
Located in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin of New Mexico, Spaceport America is billed as "the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport" and is home to private space luminaries such as Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, UP Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace.
The LEED Gold-certified facility covers approximately 62,245 square metres in total and includes a pair of 4366 square metre double-height hangars as well as an on-site mission control centre. The spaceport is accessible via a short shuttle ride from the nearby town of Truth Or Consequences, NM. [Wikipedia - Spaceport America]
Kodiak Launch Complex
The 3700 acre Kodiak Launch Complex is the only high altitude, full service spaceport in the country. Located on the 54th latitude at Narrow Cape, Kodiak Island, the KLC specialises in polar launches — those commonly used for putting satellites into orbit. The state-of-the-art facility includes dual launch pads (one for orbital launches, the other sub-orbital), a 17-storey rocket assembly building, and a clean room for preparing satellites. The KLC is currently building a third pad that will allow an incredibly tight launch schedule — less than 24 hours from go-ahead to liftoff. [Alaska Aerospace]
Picture: AP Photo/US Navy, John F. Williams