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. But four of Burns Flat’s six hangars sit empty. Khourie said he looks forward to a time when all the hangars are full. Much of the activity at Burns Flat is aviation related and the facility — a public airport — is funded by hangar rent and fuel sales, as well as federal grants that pay for improvement projects. The state Legislature has provided the authority with funding from its budget, including $493,000 in the 2010 fiscal year, but with state coffers running low, there’s no telling what will happen when the new budget is drafted. Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, said Burns Flats’ piece of the pie will be examined this year in light of the budget crisis. "I think every agency, including that one, is going to be subject to intense scrutiny on what is costly to the state and whether it’s a worthwhile project,” he said. Dank, who has been critical of Rocketplane, said Burns Flat’s runway is "impressive” but likely won’t ever see a spaceflight. "I sure don’t think it will ever be a spaceport,” he said. "I think that was a pipe dream from the very beginning.”
Alternative usesHowever, Dank said he hasn’t given up on Burns Flat and sees potential there for a company such as UPS or FedEx. Khourie said he’d be open to either delivery service coming to town, and he’s also approached Boeing’s commercial division and other aircraft manufacturers about using the facilities. But he doesn’t dismiss the idea of a rocket launching into space from Burns Flat. Armadillo Aerospace, a suburban Dallas company led by famed computer game programmer John Carmack, is interested in testing an experimental vehicle capable of vertical take off and landing at Burns Flat, where it has run test flights before. And Xcor, an aerospace company in Mojave, Calif., has said it may bring its Lynx vehicle to Burns Flat for test flights as well, Khourie said. Of eight licensed spaceports in the U.S., Burns Flat is the only one clear of military operating areas or restricted airspace. That offers Oklahoma a lot of opportunity, said Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell. And unlike New Mexico, which is scrambling to build a state-funded, $200 million spaceport in an agreement with Virgin Galactic, Burns Flat is ready for takeoff. Russ said it was disappointing when Rocketplane left the state, but there are other players in the private space race that could put the giant runway to good use. "It’s a multimillion-dollar asset, and it would be poor management for us to let it crumble and fall apart and let the tumbleweeds collect on the fence,” he said.