Is Spaceport Sweden lost in…space?

by | Nov 13, 2008 | Seradata News | 0 comments

It can’t be denied that publicity surrounding the Swedish Space Corporation’s (SSC) proposed Spaceport Sweden since January 2007 would have done nothing but good for tourism for that nordic country’s most northernmost arctic city, and the port’s nearest outcrop of civilisation, Kiruna

But one wonders whether a combination of Swedish legal knots, European aviation rules and US arms trafficking laws won’t derail the embyronic spaceport project

As the declared first port of call for Virgin Galactic after its commercial start in the very southern state of New Mexico and its Spaceport America, we at Flight have taken a keen interest in the Swedish grab for a European first

And if it fails it won’t be the first space related Kiruna based endeavour to come down to Earth, so to speak. Flight reported back in 2004 about the Xero Experience whose last flights were planned according to one luxury tourism website in October 2006 and its own website no longer works

Before that last planned parabolic flight (Did Xero ever actually fly anyone, I’d like to know?), in April 2006, Flight had reported that Sweden was a candidate for Virgin Galactic operations. But it was only after the January 2007 launch of the Spaceport Sweden concept that work actually began on drawing up the practical steps to make it a reality

We didn’t hear much but earlier this year, January or February 2008, there was another media invite to visit Kiruna to see what it offered along with the prospect of space tourism. There didn’t seem to be much of anything going on so I didn’t go and unless anyone can find any report and correct me there was no new news from the event

I was still eager however to find out exactly what had been accomplished so far. There had been talk of a student (don’t ask me why a student) undertaking the task of examining the different “work packages” (its a very “Euro-anglais” phrase that basically means list of what activities have to be carried out) of which there at least a dozen – sounded very comprehensive

So I was somewhat surprised that the next steps for Spaceport Sweden, outlined in a presentation at the May 2008 International Academy of Astronautic’s 1st symposium on private human access to space in France’s south western coastal town of Arcachon, were little different to what I had heard in January 2007. Even the UK had done better and carried out a review of its launch licensing rules

Following up the whole issue after the symposium, in the July I eventually found out that sounding rockets were being proposed as a legal means to put a framework around Spaceport Sweden’s suborbital tourism activities and a yes or no too that idea was expected from the Swedish government by year’s end

For Flight’s October Sweden special issue my colleague Niall O’Keeffe, our European editor, tried to contact the student who had worked on these packages (I had her email address) and others related to the project but he found out little. So my blog entry became an unrevised story for that Swedish edition. Again little progress seemed to have occured for Spaceport Sweden 21-months after its launch

And now we know that the SSC’s proposed rocket legal manouver could be torpedoed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson’s recent Swedish tv interview guestimate of a 2012 start for Spaceport Sweden could be very wide of the mark

This is because, like the UK, the Sweden Civil Aviation Authority, is a member of EASA and that five-year old pan-European agency has come to some preliminary conclusions that vehicles with wings are aircraft and that certification is required even if they fly to 100km (62miles)

So will the Swedish government still want to argue that SpaceShipTwo is a sounding rocket?

I suspect not. I am expecting that approach to be dumped and once that ruling comes, by SSC’s own words, the timetable of operations early in the next decade with a Swedish general election in 2010, is going to be very unlikely

A wildcard in all this is the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). We now know that it is embarking on an international effort to have its “light touch” legal approach for space tourism adopted by other governments. Could the Swedish government, whose space corporation, the SSC, has been in discussions with the FAA, argue that EASA has got it wrong?

Another wildcard is the US arms trafficking laws, commonly known by the acronym ITAR. At the International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow  in late September, early October, Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn said that the US government had been helpful regarding ITAR. That is true with regards to the technical agreements the UK arm of Virgin Galactic (which has a US registered sister company of the same name) needs for its officers to be involved in the development of SpaceShipTwo (SS2) and its mothership WhiteKnightTwo

What Spaceport Sweden has to cope with though is that the servicing of the SS2 at Spaceport Sweden will come under ITAR. Every time that solid fuel, gaseous (I think) oxidiser rocket motor assembly is put together and fitted to the space ship that will have to be done under agreements governed by ITAR. Not to mention the involvement of the UK government because of the Cold War outer space treaties

The road to Spaceport Sweden was always going to be a long one and that is why the announcements of January 2007 seemed realistic with the timeframe then envisaged but unless there is a concerted effort and soon, this new arctic frontier for space tourism will be little more than pie in the blackest of skies

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