Move over, Cape Canaveral.
The rapid growth of the space launch business, now fueled more by commercial satellites than exploration, means there's big money to be made playing host to rocket-launching "spaceports."
Over the next decade, some 1,700 satellites are slated to be launched at a cost of more than $30 billion. Launch sites could also serve Earth-weary tourists, manufacturers creating gravity-free assembly lines, and astronauts headed to the international space station.
That's why, for 15 states from Florida to California, looking for the jobs of the future means looking to outer space - and to a potentially revolutionary reusable rocket called VentureStar, under development by Lockheed Martin Corp.
"It comes with huge economic development opportunities. If all the affiliated entities involved locate at the site, it will be worth over $1 billion annually to the state that gets VentureStar," explains Del Schuh, the executive director of the Aerospace States Association.
The yet-to-be-tested design calls for a rocket capable of carrying satellites weighing up to 25 tons into orbit and then returning to Earth to land like an airplane.
By making space launches cheaper, it could help American launch sites compete better with sites in China, Australia, and French Guiana.
Eventually, with VentureStar or a similar reusable rocket design, "Seven or eight spaceports could be kept very busy," Mr. Schuh predicts.
Thirty-one locales in 15 states are vying to catch VentureStar's eye - including Cape Canaveral itself. One hamlet in southern New Mexico even changed its name to Spaceport City. And while the name change briefly got some headlines (the town voted to disband in March after a long fight) the state that wins VentureStar will need good geography, good infrastructure, and lots of money.
No thanks, Duluth
"You want access to water and you want good weather most of the time. That doesn't give you Duluth, Minn., as a likely site," says John Logsdon, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The winner will likely be a southern state with room for a long runway and a launch site that borders an unpopulated area, like an ocean. That may give an advantage to California and Florida, both of which already have federally licensed commercial spaceports and are spending heavily to attract VentureStar.
The Florida Legislature recently gave $600,000 to the Spaceport Florida Authority to help it recruit VentureStar. In addition, the state is spending millions of dollars upgrading its commercial rocket facilities at Cape Canaveral.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration "has all the infrastructure here to process payloads and send up astronauts," said Edward Ellegood, the director of policy and program development at the Spaceport Florida Authority. "NASA isn't going to want to re-create that infrastructure anywhere else," he says, siting Cape Canaveral's 3,000 launches since 1950.
Florida's head start hasn't stopped states like Virginia, which has a licensed spaceport on Wallops Island, from vying for the project. Texas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and a handful of other states hope to land one of two planned VentureStar spaceports.
Lockheed Martin officials will meet with all of the states in July or August to discuss their chances of landing the project. The company expects the X-33, a half-scale prototype of VentureStar, to have its first flight next summer.
The US isn't the only country investing in spaceports. In March, Sea Launch, a consortium consisting of companies from four countries (including America's Boeing), launched a Ukranian- and Russian-built rocket from a converted oil rig floating in the South Pacific. China, Japan, Australia and Brazil are all investing in their spaceports. And the French company, Arianespace, continues its domination of the commercial launch business. The company has had 44 consecutive successful launches using its Ariane-4 rocket and its spaceport in French Guiana.
Among the VentureStar candidates is Pecos County, Texas, an area better known for its faltering oil and gas business than rockets and satellites. Pecos County Judge Delmon Hodges concedes the county's spaceport chances are "fairly slim." He says the county, 200 miles southeast of El Paso in the sweltering Chihuahuan Desert, boasts wide-open space and good weather. "With 12 inches of rainfall a year, you're not going to get rained out."