High Flight from the High Country
by Dale M. Gray
The thought of Idaho becoming a player in the rapidly evolving world of spaceflight has until recently been a little hard to swallow. Idaho, to the extent that it is known at all, is famous for potatoes, Micron, Sun Valley skiing or the home of the Albertson's supermarket chain. However, changes in technology and the bureaucratic world have changed the environment for space flight to the benefit of sparsely populated western states. The emerging economic frontier based on the use and exploitation of orbital space has filled the launch calendars and put unprecedented demands on existing launch complexes. With market forces pushing for airline-like service to space, decision makers are taking a long hard look at traditional launch sites and reaching some surprising conclusions.
In the past few years market demands and advances in material sciences have created a race to create a truly reusable spacecraft, thereby reducing the cost per pound to orbit. Stronger and ultra-light materials are constantly improving the structure to fuel ratio on potential new space vehicles. New turbopumps are smaller yet stronger with fewer moving parts. To withstand the heat of reentry, exotic metals have replaced the delicate custom-built, hand-placed ceramic tiles used on the Shuttle. New rocket engines and thrusters that have improved efficiency and capability are being developed or have become available from former Soviet countries. Control software is evolving rapidly. Electronic hardware continues to shrink while becoming more powerful. New manufacturing techniques allow greater efficiency in production of components, sub-systems and assemblies. With these improvements, new design strategies are becoming possible. Technology advances are allowing planners, designers and engineers to work toward radically lowering launch costs. The "Holy Grail" of rocketry, the Single-Stage-to-Orbit (SSTO) reusable spacecraft is nearly in our grasp.
At the same time, the Legislative environment of space commerce has radically changed in the past two years. In 1998, faced with American start-up companies such as Kistler going abroad to get permission to attempt private orbital reentry, the US Congress passed the Commercial Space Act. This set up a permitting system whereby such companies could get permission for their launch systems to reenter and land on American soil. However, at about the same time, Congress also passed the Strom Thurmond Defense Act which in one of its minor provisions reclassified satellites as "munitions" and transferred their export permit process from the Department of Commerce to the State Department. This went into effect in March of 1999 and resulted in the creation of a bottleneck choked with bureaucratic paper that has hampered the flow of satellites manufactured in America to spaceports abroad. Insurance companies, unable to get detailed information on satellites, have refused to insure American satellites launched on foreign soil. One company, Orbital Sciences, found itself in the absurd position of being unable to share subsystem design details with its Canadian subsidiary that held a satellite contract.
The purpose of the Strom Thurmond Act was to stop the flow of technology to potentially hostile foreign powers. The Act was precipitated by several incidents involving American companies and the Chinese government. According to the Cox Report, significant launch technology and information was transferred to China following two launch failures involving Hughes and Loral satellite payloads. By moving the permitting of satellite exports to the State Department, the Act sought to erect "firewalls" to prohibit the passage of sensitive technological information. While this no doubt has been done, the State Department was overwhelmed by the robust satellite export industry. As a direct result, history will record that the 1998 Congress deliberately crippled its own satellite manufacturing industry -- giving foreign satellite manufacturers an edge. In the past few years America has supplied two thirds of the satellites that were launched each year and many of the subsystems of foreign-made satellites. Since March of 1999, this is no longer true.
While the Strom Thurmond Act has put a wet blanket on the fires of the satellite manufacturing industry, it has created incredible internal pressures to increase the number of domestic launches. Unfortunately, the timing of the Act was less than perfect with the Act coming on-line just as American launch systems such as the Titan IV, Delta III and Athena suffered launch failures. These systems and even competitor's systems using common components have been grounded at the very time that the State Department created the bottleneck for exports. The result is a tremendous pressure for alternative American launch systems.
This brings us back to Idaho, which along with 14 other states, is competing for a Lockheed Martin contract as one of two launch and landing sites for their VentureStar spacecraft. While Idaho is too far north to compete for the equatorial launch site, it is well positioned for serving polar and International Space Station orbits.
The state offers a launch site that is 5,000 feet higher than the traditional coastal launch sites, allowing for greater payload. The entire proposed launch site is under one owner, the US Department of Energy. Despite its relative isolation, the site has extensive infrastructure development. The proposed site is located at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, which has a large labor pool of scientists, as well as extensive and advanced research facilities, an established three grid power network, and abundant water supply. It has a mild climate with one of the lowest lightning strike rates in the United States. With 30 years of detailed weather reports, the site offers far fewer weather restrictions than coastal sites such as Florida or California. Idaho also has an unusually clear airspace and no nearby downrange populations.
The folks in Idaho are no fools; they know their sparsely populated state will have a hard time competing with lower tier states for traditional rocket business. However, they also see the future of space is not just the elaborate heavy-duty launch structures needed for expendable rockets. Instead, they have opted to create an environment attractive to the emerging reusable spacecraft industry. Nor have they pinned all their hopes on the VentureStar contract. While Spaceport Idaho has a number of quality points and could well get the contract, other western states vying for VentureStar such as Montana, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico also have attractive features. VentureStar would do much to jump-start Idaho's space industry, but the men and women working on Spaceport Idaho today have their eyes on a future beyond VentureStar.
As a measure of Idaho's serious commitment to developing its own spaceport, one of the first acts of the state's new Governor, Dirk Kempthorne, was to fund an office to promote Spaceport Idaho. Idaho's Department of Commerce Director, Tom Arnold, left his important cabinet position to become the Governor's Representative for the Idaho Office of Spaceport Development. He, along with Jay Engstrom, Administrator of the State Division of Economic Development and Ralph Bennett, head of the Northstar Spaceport Corp., are leading the effort to clear away bureaucratic hurdles and create a favorable environment for private launch firms.
Without the muscle that large populations and large coffers give other states, Idaho has chosen to use time itself as leverage to enter the space age. Idaho is using a measured approach that seeks to attract the VentureStar award while preparing for a future where privately funded and developed launch systems are operational. Idaho seeks to remove the bureaucratic overburden to make it easy for these private companies to locate in Idaho and begin operations relatively quickly. A Down-Range Safety and Risk Analysis Study is now underway. When SSTO becomes a reality, Idaho will be ready to offer a location for operations for any and all companies who wish to operate out of a privately developed spaceport.
The Spaceport has widespread popular support among the citizens of Idaho. In public meetings the Spaceport has received virtually unanimous endorsement. The Northstar Spaceport Corp., a for-profit corporation, is the active arm of the Regional Development Alliance which promotes development in seven eastern Idaho counties.
Idahoans from throughout the state are becoming more involved with space.
To the southeast of the proposed Spaceport is the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. This past year students from the school there had an experiment fly on the Shuttle and are currently working up a new experiment to fly in space. Barbara Morgan, the back-up Teacher in Space and current astronaut trainee, is from McCall, Idaho and is one of Idaho's most identifiable personalities. When Boise State University created its new Engineering School they chose former NASA researcher Lynn Russell as its Dean. Russell, who also has credentials heading Engineering schools at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and the University of Tennesee, has a trajectory program up and running for launches from the Spaceport.
On a recent Saturday, a friend from Italy and I drove from Boise, Idaho, to the location of Spaceport Idaho. The site is on the north end of INEEL, the large federal installation that dominates the Snake River Plain. In the past, I have driven by the site many times on my way to Montana. It is a broad, flat plain rimmed on the west and north by mountains and on a clear day the Teton range can be seen far to the east. During the recent trip, I marveled once again at the gigantic airplane hanger that dominates Test Area North (TAN) where two launch pads are proposed to be erected. The hanger was built early in the Cold War frenzy as part of the Atomic Bomber project. A long runway was graded at one time that leads straight out from the hanger. Near the hanger are an office and laboratory complex complete with heavy industrial power and water connections. The closest major city is Idaho Falls -- about an hour to the east.
Transportation has always been the key to the development of Idaho. Just over the horizon to the south, covered wagons once crossed Idaho on the Oregon Trail. A few decades later, the Oregon Short Line brought immigrants and industry on iron rails to the fledgling Idaho Territory. In this century, a series of state highways and Interstates crisscrossed the agrarian State linking farms and factories to the outside world. The Spaceport can be accessed by three state highways and Interstate 15 is only half an hour's drive to the east. Because Idaho has emerged from isolation, its people understand the importance of transportation to their future.
While Spaceport Idaho is now primarily the home of antelope and lone coyotes, essential work is being done to create the future spaceport. The improbable and unlikely of today will become the commonplace of tomorrow. The developers of Spaceport Idaho know that America cannot long remain restricted to only a few government-controlled space centers. As future commerce moves upward to orbit, America and the world will need many
new spaceports. The future will happen and space travel will be a part of it. By beginning now Idaho is preparing for the day when access to space is as routine as flights from Boise to Los Angeles.
This may be the first time you have heard of Spaceport Idaho; it will not be the last.
Division of Economic Development
Idaho Department of Commerce
(208) 334-2470, FAX (208) 334-2631