Deal nearly in place to launch private space planes from old shuttle runway

A new breed of vacationers - space tourists - could launch from Central Florida as soon as 2015 under an agreement that would put Florida officials in charge of the 3-mile runway at Kennedy Space Center that once was used by space shuttles.

The preliminary deal, to be announced Friday by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, would give Space Florida, the state's public-private promoter of the space industry, control of one of the largest landing strips in the world and one that's enshrined in space history: Nearly 80 shuttle crews landed there before NASA ended the 30-year program in 2011.

Now it looks likely that the shuttle runway will host a new different type of space traveler: tourists and scientists making suborbital trips on "space planes" that can launch from and land on the big landing strip.

A top executive with the California company XCOR Aerospace, a builder that has expressed interest in the runway for months, said the preliminary agreement makes it all but certain that it would establish a base at the strip for "participant flights" - perhaps by 2015.

"It's always been our hope to fly from the shuttle-landing facility, and it looks like that's starting to materialize," said Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer of XCOR.

A new XCOR base at Kennedy Space Center could bring as many as 150 jobs by late 2018 - and some wealthy tourists. It costs $95,000 for one seat aboard an XCOR space plane, which is designed to blast a pilot and a tourist as high as 330,000 feet for a five-minute stay in the of suborbital space.

No tourists yet have flown, but XCOR hopes to begin test flights with a pilot by the end of this year. The company already has sold 22 seats to the parent company of Axe body spray, which will award them in a global marketing contest that has attracted more than 500,000 entrants.

Neither NASA nor Space Florida would say much publicly before the announcement.

Sources close to the negotiations said a few wrinkles were still being worked out, including when Space Florida would take control of the runway and other nearby buildings such as a control tower. It's not certain whether Space Florida would pay NASA to use the facility, though it would remain under NASA ownership.

Even if there's no "rent" or transfer fee, there's still a clear benefit for NASA. The agency has been under pressure from Washington to cut expenses, and transferring control could save NASA an estimated $2.1 million in operations and maintenance costs, according to NASA documents.

Once in charge, Space Florida would assume these expenses, with the intent of recouping the money from the new tenants it hopes to attract.

Another potential customer is Stratolaunch Systems. The Alabama-based company, whose board includes former NASA chief Michael Griffin is looking to build an aircraft about twice the size of a Boeing 747 to enable the launch of crew and cargo into space.

The plane would carry a vehicle high into the atmosphere before releasing it to fly the rest of the way on its own. Stratolaunch officials have said that Kennedy Space Center is one option for a launch site.

A bigger prize, however, could be in the growing business of unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones.

After years of use overseas by the U.S. military, drones are expected to go into widespread domestic use, and Space Florida wants to make the state a leader in the fledgling industry.

Space Florida has applied to become one of six sites that the Federal Aviation Administration plans to use to test the integration of drones into U.S. airspace. A key part of Space Florida's bid is using the shuttle-landing facility as a base of operations, with the long-term goal of making the area a hub of drone flights and testing.

©2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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