The battle for space shots heats up on the ground

Space ports wrangle business and prep for commercial space operations

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It seems the scaffolding that will hold up the commercial space industry is being bolstered almost daily. Today Masten Space Systems and Space Florida inked an agreement to perform demonstration launches of the space company's suborbital reusable launch vehicle from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Last week another key spaceport -- Spaceport America and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority put out Requests For Proposals (RFPs) for the day-to-day operations as the facility as it revs up for space operations.

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And let's not forget, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which will ultimately oversee most of the commercial space flight development recently granted $500,000 to fund projects that develop and expand the infrastructure for outer space transportation. 

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation will administer the almost $500,000 in Space Transportation Infrastructure Matching Grants.  The first matching grants include: $43,000 for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority to provide an Automated Weather Observing System; $227,195 to the Alaska Aerospace Corporation for a Rocket Motor Storage Facility; $125,000 to the East Kern Airport District in Mojave, Calif., for an emergency response vehicle; and, $104,805 to the Jacksonville Airport Authority in Florida to develop a Spaceport Master Plan for Cecil Field

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The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation is responsible for licensing, regulating and promoting the commercial-sector space industry.  Since the office was created in 1984, the FAA has issued licenses for more than 200 launches, licensed the operation of eight FAA-approved launch sites known as spaceports, and has helped ensure that no loss of life or serious injury has been associated with these efforts.

The FAA in the past year has taken a variety of steps to bolster commercial space flight including:

  • § In April, the agency began setting up a central hub for the development of key commercial space transportation technologies such as space launch and traffic management applications and setting orbital safety standards. The hub, known as the Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation would have a $1 million yearly budget and tie together universities, industry players and the government for cost-sharing research and development. The FAA expects the center to be up and running this year.
  • § In November 2009 the FAA said it would streamline the environmental review part of permit applications for the launch and/or reentry of reusable suborbital rockets to help bolster a fledgling commercial space market.

Meanwhile, Masten said it currently develops its vehicles and carries out flight tests in Mojave, CA.

"As our vehicles near completion, we're searching for the ideal launch location from which to base our flight operations team," said Michael Mealling, Masten's CFO in a statement. "While we are preparing for a flight demonstration in Florida, there are enough new space ports around the country that evaluating them will take time. Our ultimate goal is to develop enough market demand to justify flying from multiple space ports."

Masten's reusable, vertical-takeoff-and-landing suborbital rockets are designed to be operated frequently and affordably, flying several missions per day with a small crew. Masten's and similar suborbital craft will enable frequent, reliable, and low-cost access to the suborbital space environment. This provides scientists and technology developers with high-quality microgravity, clear observation of space phenomena, or routine contact with the upper atmosphere, the company stared.

Out west, Spaceport America says it is prepping for day-to-day launch operations. The RFPs represent another major milestone on the path toward serving commercial spaceflight companies, the group stated. The Spaceport is looking for general service, such as maintenance; security and technical services.

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) last month dedicated a nearly two-mile long runway dubbed the "Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway," that featured a flyover and landing by Virgin Galactic's Enterprise and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership.

The runway will be needed as other commercial space vendors ramp up operations.  For example, Armadillo Aerospace plans to launch three NASA-funded tests of their vertical takeoff and landing rocket technology from Spaceport America this winter.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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