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Columbia explosion could affect Oklahoma space industry

BURNS FLAT, Okla. (AP) _ The space shuttle Columbia tragedy could put a damper on progress at Oklahoma's spaceport, a businessman interested in the project says.

Chuck Lauer, founder of the California-based Pioneer Rocketplane, predicts the explosion initially will hurt commercial space industries nationwide.

Pioneer Rocketplane is one of a handful of companies working with the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority. The California company is developing a prototype suborbital, reusable launch vehicle that would carry passengers into space.

Lauer wants to launch such vehicles from the Oklahoma spaceport in Burns Flat. The spaceport at the old Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base has the fourth-largest runway in the nation.

``Nobody invests in an uncertain market, especially when the technology is in question,'' Lauer said Saturday from his home in Michigan.

Oklahoma's spaceport was created by the Legislature in 1999.

``What will the impact be on Oklahoma? We'll have to wait and see,'' said Bob Triplett, the Oklahoma Space Industrial Development Authority chairman. ``But I think one thing has become very clear. NASA is dealing with outdated technology, and there is now a clear need for new, innovative technology such as reusable launch vehicles.''

Jim Benson, chief executive of the California-based SpaceDev Inc., said he believes there will be a move toward new technology when the Columbia investigation ends. Until then, the space industry could be affected, he said.

``Investors are very cautious, and not generally willing to take risks,'' Benson said.

In March, about 550 paper airplanes made by Oklahoma students were launched from the spaceport. The planes were placed in a small metal space cage that was attached to a weather balloon.

When the balloon was 95,345 feet above the Earth, the planes were released. Most hurtled toward Earth, reaching the speed of sound before crashing.
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