Isolated nature of spaceport site an advantage

Monday, May 6th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BURNS FLAT, Okla. (AP) _ Western Oklahoma's rural isolation could aid the chances that it will become the future site of a spaceport, said retired Air Force Gen. Jay Edwards.

``When you're looking to develop a spaceport, you want a scarcely populated area,'' said Edwards, executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority, a state agency since 1999.

The former aeronautical engineer said he is confident that vertical-takeoff shuttle-like aircraft will eventually use the 13,500-foot runway, North America's third largest, at the old Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base in Burns Flat.

``I believe the first reusable launch vehicle will be launched in Oklahoma,'' Edwards said.

Private investors are eager to tap into commercial space ventures designed around travel, adventure and satellite launches, he said.

Burns Flat lost its last grocery store in November.

``The spaceport is critical,'' said State Rep. Jack Bonny, D-Burns Flat, who co-authored the bill that created the Space Authority. ``And I believe it's going to happen.''

Some of Bonny's constituents aren't convinced.

``Ever since that base closed, they have told us about all these wonderful things that were going to move in out there, and not one has happened,'' said Glen Ledbetter, a Burns Flat farmer. ``I remember in 1970, even Howard Hughes was thinking about buying it for a private airport. Then that fell through.''

``Will the spaceport be built? No.''

John Hays, president of Southwestern Oklahoma State University, wants to make sure the university has a role with the spaceport.

Administrators and faculty members have compiled a curriculum that would relate specifically to the spaceport. The curriculum will be presented to the university's board next month, and if all goes well, to state regents in July.

``I do think this is going to happen,'' Hays said. ``To what extent, we'll just have to wait and see. But I don't want this opportunity to slip through our fingers.''

Space Authority officials are awaiting approval of their budget by state legislators, who allocated $800,000 last year. If the agency is given at least $600,000 this year, Edwards said, he will press forward with an environmental impact study of the Clinton-Sherman base.

Companies already have submitted bids ranging from $300,000 to $700,000 for the study, Edwards said. The winning firm ultimately will be named by a Federal Aviation Administration selection committee.

``We will then seek official designation as a spaceport by the FAA,'' Edwards said.