FEATURE: Aurora Travel Gets an Altitude

In 2028, if you’re rich — really rich — your birthday present to yourself might be a trip from Aurora to South Africa, which could take just a couple of hours.

 We’re not talking first class and a day squeezed into a lumbering wide-body. We’re talking about a suborbital space trip on a rocket ship from Front Range Airport to the other side of the planet in 2 hours and 42 minutes. It might cost you about $80,000, or roughly the cost of a down payment on a nice house, but it’ll be worth it. Here’s why: You’ll get to travel six times higher than a commercial airliner, and at top speeds of Mach 6, or six times the speed of sound. You’ll fly more than 30 miles above the ground, high enough to see Earth become a globe the way astronauts do. Actually, for about five minutes, you’ll be weightless like Neil Armstong on his way to landing on the moon.


The rocket ship will traverse through the air and into the Earth’s atmosphere like it was fired out of a slingshot, and in less time than it takes to get to a chairlift at Vail, you’ll be sipping a traditional “sundowner” cocktail and ogling lions in safari land. One day, suborbital space travel might be as commonplace as traveling on a cruise ship.

What you just read is not a journalist’s attempt at a science fiction subplot. Sure, the concept sounds like it’s straight from the pages of an Arthur C. Clarke novel. But it’s not science fiction; it’s science in action. It’s an idea that aviation and aerospace experts, private investors, economic development officials and politicians in Aurora and beyond are striving to make a reality.

A humdrum airport that’s gone through a host of development struggles since 1994 is hoping to become the world’s next spaceport, a place where dreams come true for a Flash Gordon fan.

Front Range Airport sits in Watkins on 4,000 acres of vast prairie about five miles east of the Aurora border. It might seem like the middle of nowhere, but the fact that the airport is about 25 minutes from Denver International Airport and centrally located in the United States is a major selling point for the idea of a spaceport. That’s what a hybrid rocket manufacturing company believed when it approached the airport two years ago.

It was a Saturday in the summer of 2011 when officials from Florida-based Rocket Crafters Inc. talked with Dennis Heap, executive director of aviation at Front Range Airport, about the idea of suborbital space flight. Heap, who’s spent four decades in the aviation industry, thought the company was in the business of building small model rockets.

The aerospace industry was unfamiliar to him, and he wasn’t ashamed to admit it at their meeting.

“I had to tell them, in all honesty, I don’t know what a spaceport is,” Heap said. He learned fast. Rocket Crafters, as it turned out, didn’t build Christmas presents for kids who dress up as Martians on Halloween. The company builds hybrid rocket motors in hopes of one day becoming the leader in commercial suborbital transportation.

Heap was hooked. He learned that advances in horizontal launch and dual propulsion technology could make suborbital space flight possible, and that Front Range Airport could be an ideal location for a spaceport. A dual-propulsion aircraft, or a combination of a jet and a rocket, would use a jet engine to take off on a horizontal launch similar to the way conventional airplanes take off. At about 50,000 feet, the aircraft would transition from jet to rocket power, fly at top speeds of about 4,000 miles per hour and reach heights above the Earth’s atmosphere. Passengers would feel up to 6G’s, or six times the force of gravity. Then, the aircraft would switch back to its jet engine and land across the planet in just a few short hours.

Heap realized the airport he had been working at for 19 years had spaceport potential. The location was unbeatable. It had thousands of acres worth of expansion property and was minutes away from DIA. He began to see suborbital space travel as the next frontier, a way to get the generation of millenials interested in flying.

“When I was a little boy, aviation was really an adventure,” he said. “It had an element of risk. Now, it’s commonplace. It’s like riding a bus.”

Since summer 2011, Heap, also known as the “Energizer Bunny” in close circles, has recruited others to get excited about launching the idea of a spaceport off the ground. Since Colorado is the second-largest aerospace economy in the nation, support for the spaceport wasn’t hard to find. More than 166,000 people are already employed in space-related jobs in Colorado and more than 400 space-related companies and suppliers are located here. Politicians saw that the spaceport could be a boon to an already growing aerospace economy.

The idea garnered enthusiastic support from Colorado’s top officials including Gov. John Hickenlooper, who in December 2011 sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration announcing Colorado’s intent to build a spaceport. Support continued to grow in 2012, with cities, economic development groups and private companies signing on to the idea.

Even with all the fanfare, the idea of building a spaceport in a down economy still seems a little pie-in-the-sky. After all, the FAA in March was looking at shutting down Front Range Airport’s $5.7 million control tower, which would have made the entire airport obsolete. Congressional lawmakers lobbied to save the tower, which Heap says goes to show that support for the airport and its spaceport goals are genuinely nonfictional.

“In my entire aviation career, I’ve never seen anything lined up so well and have so much support for a major project like this one,” Heap said.

Front Range Airport last year raised $860,000 to hire a company that will study whether a spaceport is actually feasible there. The money was cobbled together with help from the Federal Aviation Administration, DIA, the city of Aurora, Adams County, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the town of Bennett and the Interstate 70 corridor’s economic development group.

Colorado lawmakers also last year passed mandatory Limited Liability Shielding, a law that protects spaceflight entities from being liable for any injury to a spaceflight participant. Heap hopes that by the first quarter of 2014, the feasibility study will be complete and the airport will get a spaceport license so that private companies can begin developing space planes and training astronaut pilots in earnest.

Rocket Crafters already has plans to locate pilot astronaut training programs at the spaceport and signed a letter of intent with Front Range Airport to “promote and develop Spaceport Colorado as the preferred commercial spaceport location in America’s heartland.”

The excitement around suborbital space flight is palpable not only among aviation and aerospace experts but also among business development gurus. George Peck, vice president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, an Air Force vet and owner of every iteration of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” said the state stands to reap huge economic benefits from a spaceport.

Private investors and multi-millionaires across the country have already shown interest in space flight, from Virgin Galactic CEO Richard Branson to Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies. Both have the goal of flying people into space.

Though he doesn’t have any hard numbers yet, Peck says a Colorado spaceport could attract more investors, inventors and aerospace-related businesses.

After all, people love a challenge, Peck said.

“This is one of the ultimate challenges … there’s so many things that have to be pulled together to make this work. It’s a huge challenge and yet there’s a bunch of people more than happy to jump on this,” Peck said.

Challenges, though, also come with risks. Peck said he hopes testing for suborbital space flight won’t be over-regulated or bogged down with concerns over safety.

“What scares me is that there are well-meaning people that will say, ‘We can’t do this because we might hurt somebody,’” Peck said. “There are a lot of people out there willing to take that risk, and they are willing to take it because it moves us forward.”

The idea of suborbital space flight only lived in pages of science fiction books and box office hits until recently. Joe Thibodeau, a 72-year-old Denver tax attorney and air race champion who was bitten by the aviation bug at birth, never dreamed of commercial space travel when he first started flying four decades ago.

Growing up, space travel was seen only through the eyes of fictional, futuristic characters like Buck Rogers and Captain Video.

“It was pure science fiction, just fantasy,” he said.

Wanting to contribute what aviation knowledge he could to the arena of space flight, Thibodeau joined the ranks of astronauts, US Navy pilots and planetary scientists on the Spaceport Colorado Technical Advisory Committee. The committee was formed to delve into the limitless possibilities of suborbital space flight.

Thibodeau said the aerospace industry is breaking new technological ground so fast that he finds it harder and harder to keep up with new technologies. “This whole area is moving at light speed, it’s almost like every day is like drinking from a fire hose,” he said.

In the 1930s, it was almost unfathomable that airplanes would be flying at altitudes above 12,000 feet. Now, commercial planes fly at nearly 40,000 feet, and suborbital space planes could fly as high as 300,000 feet above the Earth.

But who would actually use space planes? The options are boundless, just like they were when the aviation industry lifted off in the 1900s, Thibodeau said. At first, space planes could be used to carry vital cargo, like medical supplies, from continent to continent in a flash.

Then, “VIP’s” like executives of Fortune 500 companies, renowned medical doctors or diplomats who need to fly around the world faster could use suborbital space planes to shrink the globe.

Small satellites could even be attached to the space planes, Heap said. When the aircrafts get to their peak height at the Earth’s atmosphere, the astronaut pilots could launch the satellites into space.

Like Thibodeau, Colorado native and NASA astronaut Jeffrey Ashby also signed on to be a part of the Spaceport Colorado Technical Advisory Committee and help move forward the idea of suborbital space travel. Front Range Airport is poised to lead the transcontinental space travel industry, Ashby said. “We don’t know how and when exactly this whole industry will evolve, but one thing’s certain,” he said. “The people getting in now are going to be the ones that will eventually benefit.”

When Ashby piloted his first space trip on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999, he was surprised at how quickly his body adapted to moving around in a weightless environment at the edge of space.

On the way up, Ashby reached forces of about 5 G’s, or five times the force of gravity. It felt like someone was standing on his chest for about 30 seconds. On the way down, the force increased to 6G’s. For a few moments, he had difficulty breathing and talking because of the pressure on his throat.

For Ashby, a US Navy test pilot born and raised in Evergreen, the pivotal moment on his trip to space was looking out the shuttle windows at the blue, green and white orb that we call home. “I wasn’t sure how space flight would change me, but the realization that our existence here is so fragile was a very powerful motivator for me to become more involved in environmental causes like green energy and recycling,” he said.

Someday, ordinary citizens might be able to live the same existential experience he did, but on a space plane instead of a space shuttle. And he hopes that when they do, they’ll savor every moment. In other words, he said, don’t expect any in-flight movie or dinner service.

Rocket Crafters wrote a short story to help those of us who are not experts in aerospace technology further understand what suborbital spaceflight might actually look and feel like in the future.

The story, posted on the company’s website and called “Global 321,” follows a passenger or “spaceflight participant,” named Robert, on his trip from a fictional Florida spaceport to Buenos Aires, Argentina in the year 2021.

According to the story, Robert has already gone through the emergency trainings required before riding in a space plane, and is wearing a Gore-Tex spaceflight jacket and helmet at the spaceport terminal. He doesn’t carry any luggage; all his necessary belongings have already been flown on a regular commercial airliner to his destination. Robert completes a pre-flight medical check before takeoff.

The space plane’s runway is massive, at 2.8 miles long. The space plane reaches a takeoff speed of 220 knots, or about 250 miles per hour. Jet engines propel Robert and seven other passengers up to 85,000 feet. Then the rocket motors are turned on, producing more than 340,000 pounds of sustained thrust.

At the highest point, the passengers are at 350,000 feet, or about 66 miles, above earth. The weightlessness makes them feel queasy. They view Earth while remaining weightless for about 12 minutes.

When the spaceflight is over, gradually, they begin to descend. The space plane skips off the Earth’s atmosphere a couple of times, otherwise known as “Wave Riding.” Atmospheric skipping prevents the passengers from sustaining high re-entry temperatures and harmful radiation and G-force levels. When the passengers descend a few minutes later, they will have flown 4,300 nautical miles and landed in Buenos Aires in just under two hours.

Not a bad way to spend $80,000 if you have it.

Industry experts say the cost of suborbital space flight will need to come down eventually. That will happen as the industry matures and becomes commercial, Heap said. In about 25 years, a person could buy a ticket at a cost of about $50,000 to travel on a space plane that might even be operated by commercial airliners. But Heap cautions that cost estimates are purely wild guesses. “Industry experts don’t even know what a gallon of fuel for our automobiles will cost next week,” he said.

All this talk about space planes will probably never make commercial airplanes become obsolete. They’re cheap, and people will still need ways to get from Colorado to nearby states like Utah or California.

That raises the question, which will come first: flying cars or space planes?

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