July 12, 2009

Hawaii Considers Tourist Space Flight Program

Tourism experts say Hawaii could be the first state where space travelers use rocket planes to get from one place to another, The Associated Press reported.

For instance, travelers hopping from the Big Island to Oahu, rather than launching and landing in the same spot, planners envision the planes taking off in one place, traveling through space, and then coming down in another.

Space travelers could island hop from Hawaii to Japan in 45 minutes within a decade's time.

Chuck Lauer, vice president of business development for Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Global, said flying down the Hawaii island chain offers a completely different view of the planet than you would see when you launch from landlocked states.

"It's the blue planet view of the world," he said.

However, it is uncertain whether Gov. Linda Lingle will release the licensing money at a time when the state is facing big budget problems and possible government employee layoffs.

The state is authorized to spend $500,000 to apply for a spaceport license from the federal government, which is the first step toward allowing commercial space travel from the islands.

Lingle, who has the authority to withhold the money even after the bill becomes law, will either sign the legislation this month or let it become law without her signature.

For $200,000, tourists would receive a weeklong package that includes spaceflight training, resort accommodations and short test flights to simulate weightlessness.

Up to five tourists would then prepare for a horizontal takeoff aboard a special rocket plane, climb to 40,000 feet before rockets fire, accelerate to 3,500 mph, coast for a few minutes of weightlessness 62 miles above the Earth, flip over and then return to ground.

A lot of people would come to Hawaii to fly to space, according to Jim Crisafulli, the state's director of aerospace development.

"They wouldn't bat an eye at spending that amount of money to fly to space. It's going to be a soul-energizing experience," he said.

It would take about three years before Hawaii could get a spaceport license, meaning space flights wouldn't start before 2012. Hawaii could become the eighth state granted such a license.

Space travel companies would eventually like to see the flights used for transportation, rather than just as a tourist attraction.

Already existing runways on Oahu and the Big Island would be employed for its space program, which would use a rocket plane that looks like a midsize business jet.

Currently, the plane is in the design phase and actual construction in Burns Flat, Okla is expected to begin in a year and a half.

State Tourism Liaison Marsha Wienert said the spaceport licensing process will involve studying the rocket plane's potential effects on the environment.

She said the state was trying to stay as neutral and calm as possible about the idea.

"As we plan for the future, I agree that we should consider all opportunities, and hopefully the environmental impact statement will show that it is an opportunity," she added.

Lauer said liquid oxygen and synthetic jet fuel would power the space planes, so they wouldn't harm the environment.

John Strom, vice president of business development for Enterprise Honolulu, the Oahu economic development board, said several space tourism companies, including Rocketplane, have shown interest in coming to Hawaii if they could.

"Those businesses' studies show they can turn a tidy profit if the Hawaii market opens," he said.

Strom, a private pilot, believes space tourists will come away with a different understanding of how fragile the Earth is.

"The higher you go, the smaller it gets. You definitely get a sense of the uniqueness of this fragile blue marble that we live on," he said.


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