Cecil Field, an airport just outside of Jacksonville, Fla., was approved as the 8th commercial spaceport for horizontal launches in January 2010. The airfield's traffic control tower is shown here.
CAPE CANAVERAL ? The first wealthy tourists rocketing into space from Florida may start their trips in Jacksonville, not the Space Coast.
The Federal Aviation Authority last week approved Cecil Field, a former naval air station about 25 miles southwest of the city's downtown, as a spaceport for commercial launches of spacecraft like Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.
"We're extremely excited and very much looking to the future to work with potential operators," said Todd Lindner of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority.
State officials said Cecil Field would complement launch capabilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, not divert business from them as Brevard County looks to expand its launch portfolio in the post-shuttle era.
"This capability - in addition to similar potential sites currently being researched at Kennedy Space Center and in southern Florida - is critical to providing our state with the competitive edge it needs to be a key player in the U.S. space tourism industry," Space Florida President Frank DiBello said in a statement.
Cecil Field's license makes it the nation's seventh commercial spaceport. It permits "horizontal" launches of vehicles that would take off and land like planes at the site's 12,500-foot runway.
Rockets would ignite some 40,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean to begin suborbital flights for passengers paying about $200,000 each, offering several minutes of weightlessness and a view of the blackness of space.
"Initially, the operations will be for your upper-end leisure traveler, the person who wants an exciting ride," Lindner said.
Later, the market could expand to microgravity research flights and launches of small satellites into orbit from motherships.
Cecil Field's inaugural launch could come as soon as late 2011, Lindner said.
But one industry analyst said finding customers could prove a bigger challenge for Cecil Field than winning the FAA license, which followed a lengthy environmental review and public input.
"There are limited number of companies developing vehicles that Cecil Field can support," said Jeff Faust, a senior analyst with Futron Corp. and author of the "Personal Spaceflight" blog. "And they either already have arrangements with other spaceports or they have their own issues in terms of their financial situation they have to take care of first before they can think about flying anyplace."
Lindner said the aviation authority has talked with companies including Calif.-based XCOR Aerospace and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Global, but has no contracts in place.
Financial problems have forced Rocketplane to stop development of its vehicle, Faust said. Virgin Galactic is building Spaceport America in New Mexico, so it would likely only look to Florida as a secondary launch site.
Several other private companies hoping to launch people or cargo, including Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems and Blue Origin, are developing vertical launch systems that would be potential customers for the Cape, not Cecil Field.
Space Florida is seeking FAA approval for vertical commercial launches from two Cape Canaveral complexes.
The agency believes a network of spaceports will serve the horizontal launch market, possibly at some point including KSC's three-mile shuttle landing strip. A feasibility study to use Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport near Miami is also under way.
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