Officials defend spaceport efforts

Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority officials say now is the time to accelerate — not abandon — efforts to turn the airpark here into a booming spaceport.
by Randy Ellis Published: January 21, 2013

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.

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by Randy Ellis
Capitol Bureau Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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