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StateImpact: Oklahoma Space Hopes Out of This World

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Local News, Science.
October 14, 2011
 

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The Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority was created in 1999 with the vision of Oklahoma as the national pacesetter in the emerging commercial space industry that would make space tourism a reality. 13 years later the agency barely clings to life. StateImpact’s Logan Layden reports on Oklahoma’s foray into the final frontier.

August 2008. A small experimental plane with a rocket engine takes off from the Oklahoma Spaceport in Burns Flat on a test flight. After years of planning, experimental flights were finally happening at the former Air Force base repurposed as a spaceport, but trouble was already brewing in the state’s young space industry.

A company called Rocketplane took advantage of a state tax credit in the amount of 18-million dollars to be the anchor tenant at the spaceport and build a ship to take tourists from the plains of western Oklahoma to low earth orbit. It also won a contract with NASA to build a vehicle to send cargo to the International Space Station. It was an ambitious plan, and by the summer of 2010, Rocketplane was bankrupt.

“I bet the ranch on space. I went into personal bankruptcy after it was all over.”

Rocketplane’s owner, George French Jr., says the subprime mortgage crisis hit just as he was about to secure 500-million dollars for a NASA funding benchmark.

“The vice president of the bank actually put his arm around me and said, ‘Don’t worry, George, we’re gonna raise this money for you.’ When Wall Street blew up, virtually everybody, including the big banks, was involved in the sub-prime loans. And so all the money in New York puckered up. Period.”

With the evaporation of the NASA deal and the economic crisis underway, Rocketplane was doomed. But the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority, which runs the Oklahoma Spaceport, remains. It’s been a victim of state budget shortfalls like most other agencies, going from an appropriation of around one million dollars back in 2003 to just less than 400-thousand dollars for fiscal year 2012. OSIDA was lucky to get that. Governor Mary Fallin backed off a plan last legislative session to eliminate the agency.

OSIDA Director Bill Khourie slaps the big red button that opens the massive doors of a 32-thousand square foot hanger just off the Spaceport’s two-and-a-half mile runway, one of the longest in North America.

“I don’t live in fear. Whatever the future brings it will bring, but in the meantime it’s not going to detour us, nor slow us down or take away from the intensity that we have to do the best we can to bring jobs to Oklahoma.”

Currently, the primary user of the Oklahoma Spaceport is the U.S. Air Force, which flies training missions there. Khourie says a name change to the Oklahoma Air and Spaceport reflects its versatility as a general aviation facility. He says discussions continue with private spaceflight companies like Virgin Galactic and Xcorps, but Oklahoma now has competition from nearly a dozen other spaceports. The more than 200-million dollar Spaceport America was just built in New Mexico. Jeff Foust runs the space industry blog newspacejournal.com.

“The advantage that the Oklahoma spaceport had was that it had inherited the infrastructure from the former Air Force base there. But now that Spaceport America is pretty much complete that particular advantage has gone away. It’s tough to see a case where Oklahoma would have a competitive advantage over New Mexico or California or other places, like Florida.”

With continued slow economic growth predicted for the state, the legislature likely won’t be in the mood to restore previous funding levels this coming legislative session.

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