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Despite Rocketplane's woes, Oklahoma Spaceport remains operational



The original reason for its start may no longer be visible in the state, but that hasn't stopped the Oklahoma Spaceport from slowing down operations.

Created to function as a launch pad for suborbital space tourism, the Spaceport near Burns Flat has found other ways to generate business and keep folks busy out there.


"We've really been concentrating on the aerospace side," said Bill Khourie, executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industrial Development Authority (OSIDA), which operates the Spaceport. "I made a presentation to Boeing Commercial Aircraft last year. They would like to have us on their list to test flights."

Looking into flights that stay within the Earth's atmosphere may have to be the route Khourie takes for keeping the Spaceport's doors open.

OSIDA was established by law in 1999, and the Spaceport was to coincide with a space tourism company planting roots in Oklahoma. Rocketplane Global opened its doors as an Oklahoma business in 2003 after the company received an $18 million tax credit from the state. Rocketplane intended to launch passengers into the outer layer of the Earth's atmosphere for a few minutes before descending back to the ground at a cost of $100,000 per passenger (that price later rose to $250,000). The ship would take off and land at the Burns Flat Spaceport.

But after years of delays and setbacks, that adventure is on hold with Rocketplane having closed its Oklahoma City office. Khourie said the move is disappointing, but not unexpected, as Rocketplane officials had been telling OSIDA about the financial hardships plaguing the company because investors were hard to come by.

In February, Rocketplane shuttered its headquarters at the Will Rogers World Airport complex. Oklahoma Gazette contacted Rocketplane president George French in Green Bay, Wis., but he would not comment on the record about the company.

The Spaceport itself was not immune to its own problems getting off the ground. Millions of dollars were poured into the former Clinton Naval Air Station, later the Clinton-Sherman Airport, just south of Interstate 40 about 100 miles west of Oklahoma City. The facility had to be refurbished to operational standards, and it took a few years to get licensed from the Federal Aviation Administration to become an official space launch site.

With one of the longest landing strips of any air base facility in the country, Burns Flat was an ideal place for aerospace flights. The massive runway stretches 13,500 feet long with a width of 300 feet. It has the capability of launching flights either vertically or horizontal.

"There are very few runways that are 300 foot wide," Khourie said.

Although Rocketplane never officially launched at Burns Flat, the Spaceport has seen a rocket blast off. Armadillo Aerospace launched its Pixel rocket from the Oklahoma Spaceport.

But Khourie said bigger plans are under way.

"We're really pursuing the unmanned aerial systems," he said. "They are being heavily utilized by the Department of Defense, U.S. Forest Service, (U.S.) Border Patrol and others. But there has been reluctance from the FAA for these vehicles to fly unless it is in restricted air space. They are still of the opinion that potential for midair collisions needs refinement.

"We're doing this in conjunction with (the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University). We want Oklahoma to become a center of unmanned aerial service. It's a great opportunity."

Khourie said his Spaceport has one advantage in getting the unmanned aerial system: The Oklahoma Spaceport is the only one with its own sub-orbital flight corridor strictly assigned to it. He believes this will also play a part in hooking up with New Mexico, which has its own Spaceport America.

"New Mexico wants to join forces," he said. "They called and asked if I wanted to design a point-to-point flight plan."

The partnership with New Mexico could be a huge boost to the Oklahoma Spaceport. New Mexico has the backing of multi-billionaire Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group, which owns several companies involved in air travel, wireless communication and the music industry. "Scott Cooper


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