BURNS FLAT — Up three flights of stairs and one more — a spiral staircase — inside an air traffic control tower built by the Navy during World War II, there is an incredible view of the runway in Burns Flat.
A swath of gray concrete, nearly three miles long and double the width of a normal runway, the landing strip seems to stretch into oblivion. It’s the Oklahoma Spaceport’s No. 1 asset. The ramp alone is made of 96 acres of concrete — large enough to accommodate 42 parked Boeing 747s. The runway was constructed to allow a pack of B-52 bombers, each loaded with nuclear weapons and a full tank of fuel, to take to the skies in formation. But some have more modern plans for the runway and its facilities — plans not yet realized. Though a sign on the control tower declares "Oklahoma, the Gateway to Space,” so far, no rockets have departed Burns Flat destined for space. Bill Khourie, executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority, believes that will change. He points to a growing commercial space industry expected to take off this year when NASA retires its fleet of space shuttles. Several U.S companies are working to develop an aircraft capable of transporting people into space, most notably Virgin Galactic, a company led by billionaire and Virgin Records founder Richard Branson. Rocketplane Global, which had planned to operate a commercial spacecraft that would take travelers to space, promised Oklahomans the moon but failed to deliver and, last year — financially broke — left the state. The company collected $18 million in state tax breaks, but its Rocketplane XP spacecraft never materialized. Last summer, the company closed its Oklahoma City headquarters and relinquished its hangar at Burns Flat. Now, the Oklahoma Spaceport is continuing without them. "Rocketplane is old news. We’re moving on,” said Joe King, authority board chairman. "We just haven’t found our billionaire yet.”
Work in progressBesides military jets practicing touch-and-go landings on the runway at Burns Flat, there was more to see at this facility in the western corner of the state during a recent visit. In a classroom inside the main offices, a group of Elk City fifth-grade students spent the day building gliders, drawing scale aircraft models and practicing flight skills on a computer simulator through the Department of Defense’s Starbase program. Starbase classrooms are located throughout the state, but the one at Burns Flat serves the entire northwest portion of Oklahoma, Khourie said. "I include it in my budget every year,” he said, emphasizing the importance of continuing to host the program. Meanwhile, in a hangar near the runway, a crew worked to strip a commercial Boeing 757 from South America.