Space Tourism in Hawaii? It's Probable

Start saving your pennies, space tourists. Tickets from Hawaii to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere could be available in two or three years.

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Earlier this year, Mainland consultants from RS&H were in the Islands to begin an environmental assessment process at major Oahu, Maui and Hawaii Island airports to determine whether any would be suitable for spaceplane launches and landings.

Meanwhile, aerospace companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR are developing spaceplanes that will be able to send science experiments, satellites and commercial space tourists into suborbit, about 61 miles above the Earth’s surface. After last month’s successful powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson set a Christmas Day 2013 goal for the first public space flight out of New Mexico.

Several aerospace companies are currently exploring opportunities to launch spaceplanes from Hawaii because of its mid-Pacific, near-equatorial location, as well as our state’s superb visitor-industry infrastructure.

The first flights won’t be cheap. For example, a 40- to 60-minute trip on a Virgin Galactic spaceplane will cost about $200,000, XCOR’s around $95,000. The tickets will include a full week of training in preparation for suborbital flight.

According to Jim Crisafulli, director of the Hawaii Office of Aerospace Development, spaceplanes will take off horizontally from airport runways and use rockets to fly approximately 61 miles to suborbit. The pilot will then cut the engines to drift back to Earth in a parabolic arc. Depending on the type of craft, the landing might be powered, or it could be a glide back to the runway, similar to former flights of U.S. space shuttles.

“The beauty of this whole effort is that spaceplane operations will use existing infrastructure at state airports,” says Crisafulli, who doesn’t anticipate any major construction will be needed to accommodate spaceplane operations. “But we have to certify that space planes can launch and land safely here, which is why we're conducting an environmental assessment.”

Since spaceplane operations will largely parallel those of commercial aircraft, the environmental assessment is likely to result in a “FONSI” (finding of no significant impact), although heavy flight traffic at the Honolulu and Kahului airports might make the Kona and Hilo airports better suited for spaceplane operations. Spaceplanes that glide in will only have one shot at the approach (similar to space shuttle landings), which could briefly suspend commercial airplane operations during the spaceplane’s landing sequence.

If the environmental review goes smoothly, Hawaii will be among several other states that have either obtained or are currently applying for commercial spaceport licenses. “The earliest we anticipate obtaining Hawai‘i’s license is late 2014, or early 2015,” Crisafulli says. “We just want to make sure we’re ready to support those kinds of operations when space planes finally become available to fly.”

For more about Hawaii’s space plans, visit aerospacehawaii.info. Information on commercial space flights is available on the Virgin Galactic and XCOR websites, including a video at xcor.com/products/vehicles/lynx_videos.html.