Colorado's Getting a Spaceport in Adams County

Colorado is one step closer to being able to send people into space — directly from the Centennial State.

After a 180-day review period, the Federal Aviation Administration has granted a delegation of Adams County officials a site operating license that allows for a spaceport on Colorado's eastern plains, only the eleventh such license that the federal agency has approved in the United States. Adams County officials already have sky-high plans. On Monday, August 21, the chairwoman of the Adams County Board of Commissioners, Mary Hodge, announced that the pre-existing Front Range Airport, which is located near Watkins, just southeast of Denver International Airport, will now become the Colorado Air and Space Port.

“We’ll be building a hub that connects Colorado to commercial aerospace and research opportunities across the globe,” Hodge declared.

The FAA’s license allows for aerospace vehicles that make horizontal takeoffs and landings (think space shuttle landings, not the vertical rocket takeoffs that happen at Cape Canaveral). This isn’t quite a ticket to the moon or Mars; the vehicles that use the spaceport in Colorado will employ rocket boosters to engage in suborbital flights, meaning that they will briefly enter space but return to Earth’s atmosphere before making a full orbital revolution around our planet. Such maneuvers open possibilities for space tourism and commercial transportation, and could even allow for a three-hour flight from Colorado to Tokyo.

Before granting the operating license last Friday, August 17, the FAA had been looking at the potential impacts of a spaceport in Adams County, including the effects of sonic booms and whether the spaceport would interfere with flights out of DIA or crop dusters tending to surrounding farms. Now that the FAA has given its permission, Adams County joins a number of other spaceport locations around the country, including Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and a spaceport in New Mexico that services Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

click to enlarge Looking west from the future site of the Colorado Air and Space Port. - COLORADO AIR AND SPACE PORT
Looking west from the future site of the Colorado Air and Space Port.
Colorado Air and Space Port
But just because the FAA has given the green light doesn’t mean that flights to space will be taking off any time soon. On Monday, Adams County officials, including the county’s economic development director, Barry Gore, explained to reporters that the FAA operating license is just the first step in a multi-layered process. The Colorado Air and Space Port will still need to conduct plenty of studies using suborbital vehicles, as well as find a suitable space company to become a licensed operator at the site. In other words, it could be a number of years before you can engage in space tourism right out of Colorado.

Still, the FAA’s announcement drew excited responses, including from Governor John Hickenlooper, who has pushed for a spaceport in Colorado since 2011. “This license supports the rapid pace of innovation of Colorado-based companies,” Hickenlooper says in a statement released from his office. “Colorado welcomes the chance to write the next chapter in our country’s space history.”

Indeed, Colorado already has the second-largest aerospace industry in the nation, as explained in our July 24 cover story, “The New Space Race,” which focused on the world's first space resources graduate program, at the Colorado School of Mines. The graduate program will teach students the technicalities of space resource extraction, such as obtaining metals from asteroids and water from the moon, as well as the policy implications of such commercial activity. 

There are already about 200,000 jobs connected to Colorado's aerospace industry, upon which the Colorado School of Mines and the Colorado Air and Space Port hope to build.