Is the time right for Arizona to build a spaceport?
Almost 60 years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union began a space race culminating with Yuri Gagarin orbiting Earth and Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon. Today, a new type of space race is brewing, and it’s one where trips to zero gravity will be more common and less “science fiction.”
The recent successful launches of vehicles like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, and Blue Origin’s New Shepard have proven that space is more reliably accessible for commercial “new space” service providers. With the global space economy currently valued at $350 billion, more states are taking a close look at what the emerging “new space” market can do for their residents. Colorado’s Front Range Airport is the most recent recipient of a FAA-issued launch site operator’s license changing its name to Colorado Air and Space Port. Colorado joins the likes of California, Florida, Virginia, New Mexico, Alaska, Texas, and Oklahoma as a state capable of facilitating some version of launch services for private industry.
Arizona is already one of the top aerospace manufacturing states having long ago attracted industry heavyweights such as Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics, among others. A 2018 report by PwC ranked Arizona No. 4 in aerospace manufacturing attractiveness, describing Arizona as “an ideal climate for aircraft testing and space observation, good transportation infrastructure, and business-friendly tax policy.” A 2018 report by Deloitte Consulting further highlighted southern Arizona’s potential for a favorable and successful commercial space ecosystem and pointed to the importance of formalizing “a unified mission for the region around key strengths and defined growth areas.”
Arizona is favorably positioned to grow in the industry and establish a unique, world-class launch site of its own. Receiving a launch site operator’s license and creating a launch site is a fundamental step to supporting that growth. The FAA requires the completion of a number of studies during the multi-year application and review process that can cost upwards of $1 million. However, with the global space industry estimated by Morgan Stanley to be valued at $1.1 trillion or more by 2040, the cost could be viewed as a wise investment. As in the Colorado example, one option for an Arizona launch site is to retrofit an existing airport. Another option worth exploring is a ground-up launch site development specifically targeting the needs of the rapidly developing nanosatellite market. Either option would send a signal to New Space service providers that Arizona has the sophisticated understanding and appetite to meet the needs of this burgeoning and well-funded industry.
In order to compete in this emerging sector, states also need to consider the education required to support the industry. Well-rounded education programs targeting STEM skills are essential to developing quality talent base. Arizona’s public universities have been highlighted as effective and capable academic partners in current and past NASA missions. In addition to the public university system, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is quickly developing one of the most advanced space programs in the world, including its space physics program and the nation’s first spaceflight operations program. Attracting new space businesses to Arizona could open the door to private sector collaboration opportunities allowing students to step out of the theoretical world and gain hands-on, referenceable experience as well as support Arizona’s already strong aerospace supply chain. Graduates would potentially have access to positions in their chosen fields here in Arizona rather than having to relocate out of state to find quality jobs in the private sector. From blue-collar jobs like plumbing to high-level engineering positions, the Arizona education system would likely adapt to include education for space employment at an early education level.
Arizona is known for its supportive business environment and has an advantage with its ideal climate and lack of weather-related interruptions. Taking advantage of both and having an FAA-licensed launch site would help to cultivate new space market options in the future and could prove to be an economic catalyst of huge proportions. It’s hard to pinpoint when ideas being discussed will no longer be hypotheticals, but it’s almost certain that we are witnessing the beginning of a trillion-dollar industry worldwide. Arizona has what it takes to enter the new space race and only needs to make sure all the elements are in place in order to fly off the starting line when the flag drops.