BURNS FLAT — Advocates of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority say now is the time to accelerate — not abandon — efforts to turn the airpark here into a booming spaceport.
Millions of dollars are being spent by other states in hot pursuit of space industries, but the facility at Burns Flat is currently one of only eight licensed launch sites in North America, said Bill Khourie, the authority's executive director.
“We're very privileged to even have the opportunity,” he said. “Plus, we have a suborbital space flight corridor that's the only one that has ever been approved in the national air space system that is not within a military operating area or restricted air space.”
Khourie said it disappoints him when he hears people talk about giving up on the Oklahoma spaceport.
“No, we haven't had a suborbital space flight operation take place from the facility yet,” he said. “But we've had some research and development tests with a lunar lander prototype.”
That might have generated some excitement, but the individual testing the prototype insisted on no publicity — just like many prospective businesses who have inquired about the airpark, he said.
Having a space corridor outside of restricted military air space is a huge advantage that gives the airpark “great opportunity for the future,” he said.
And a prosperous future likely is not as far off as some people seem to believe, said Stephen McKeever, secretary of science and technology for Gov. Mary Fallin.
Although the technology necessary for horizontal launches has been slower to develop than that for vertical launches, there have been recent advances, he said.
“Companies were not in a position to go looking for test space, but now they are,” McKeever said. Some of them have been in confidential discussions with the governor, he said.
The Burns Flat airpark is an attractive site for those companies because it features the third-longest civilian runway in North America, Khourie said.
The runway was part of the former Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base which closed in 1969.
It is 13,503 feet long, about 300 feet wide and has an additional 1,000 feet of asphalt overrun on either end, he said.
The runway continues to play a key role in Altus and Vance Air Force Base operations, with 30,000-plus flight operations by the military out there last year, he said.
The runway not only is a recruiting asset for space industries and traditional aerospace companies, it also is a huge asset in efforts to recruit companies that want to design, test and manufacture drones, McKeever said.
Rise of the drones
Military applications of drones have captured the public's attention, but the potential for civilian commercial applications is tremendous, McKeever said. The industry should experience explosive growth once the Federal Aviation Administration establishes guidelines for their use in national air space, which is scheduled to happen in 2015, he said.
Khourie said he understands and shares many of the frustrations of Burns Flat residents, but claims many of the things residents are complaining about come from misunderstandings and are outside of his agency's control.
Collapsed warehouses on spaceport property are unacceptable, he said. However, their removal is the responsibility of the federal government, he contends.
The warehouses were part of the old Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base which operated at the site from 1954 to 1969. The City of Clinton later controlled the site for years before deeding the property to the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority in 2006.
Khourie said the warehouses were already crumbling when his agency inherited them and the agency has tried for more than two years to get the federal government to remove them using a fund created for the remediation of former military sites.
Khourie said federal officials have refused to cooperate and his agency is now looking into whether any salvage company would be willing to remove the buildings in exchange for materials.
“It's been very disheartening,” he said. “We inherited the buildings in terrible condition.”
Numerous people have complained that the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority hasn't done enough to attract non-aerospace businesses, but officials are trying, Khourie said.
The airpark is a federally funded general aviation airport and a former strategic air command base, which means there are certain federal rules that will inhibit many economic development projects, regardless of who is in control of the facility, he said.
Some have criticized agency officials for refusing to sell tracts of land to companies that want to locate there, but federal rules don't allow the land to be sold, he said.
The authority has tried to accommodate companies by offering 99-year leases, but some companies don't like that, he said.
“An act of Congress would be needed to change that,” he said.
Khourie said he's not aware of any company being told it was not welcome because it was not space related.
Town leaders complained to The Oklahoman that the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority ran off a pharmacy and health clinic on airpark property by raising rent, but Khourie said those rumors are false.
“They did not have enough business to keep the facility going,” Khourie said. “We even offered to lower the rent and work with them any way we could, but they said there just wasn't enough business to justify keeping the place open.”
Khourie said the airpark golf course has been a fiasco. “We had an entity that was taking care of the golf course and someone sprayed and killed every one of the greens with Round Up,” he said. “An effort was made to re-establish them, but … the operator did not water them. It wasn't a good situation.”
Khourie said officials had no choice but to close the golf course after the greens were poisoned, but hope to one day re-establish them so the course can be reopened.
Khourie said it was state officials outside his state agency who decided that everyone who wants to play at airpark ball diamonds should be required to sign liability waivers. Town officials blame the decision for killing baseball opportunities for Burns Flat children.
Khourie said it also was not the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority's decision to terminate local workers who used to hold crash and rescue jobs at the airpark.
“That was a decision of the Department of Defense and Air Force,” he said.
Workers are now bused in from Altus Air Force Base, officials said.
Khouri said a little over $8 million in state funds have been spent on the facility during the past 11 years. The agency also receives funds from other sources, including the military which still extensively uses the runway for practice landings and take offs.
The agency is governed by a seven-member board whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
A former state representative, Jack Bonny, is the chairman of the board.
Bonny said he believes agency officials have accomplished a lot, but could have accomplished more with more money.
“I don't think by any means we've hurt economic development,” Khourie said. “We're trying to do everything we can to market aerospace research and development, manufacturing and overhaul facilities for aerospace.”
“Within the realm of aerospace, we have prospects on the space side, we have prospects on the aeronautical flight test research and development side and we have prospects on the unmanned aerial systems side,” he said. “It's here. It has just been slow developing.”
Former board member Gilmer Capps, one of the state Senate authors of legislation that created the spaceport, said he hopes Oklahomans continue to support the spaceport.
“I'd hate to see them give it up,” he said.
“I still think the space industry is going to be one of the major things in our future,” Capps said.