Written by Dr. Janet Tinoco, Associate Professor of Management and Marketing
at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Earth, air, space… For many of us, space travel was left to our imaginations as we grew up, fired by the space age and fueled by television and movies. Even as NASA’s shuttle program came to an end, we marvelled in the International Space Station (ISS) accomplishments and saw that something big was on the not-so-distant horizon….
The commercial space transportation industry is on the verge of exploding. Pioneering firms, such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX, have already accomplished technological feats that were unheard of 15 years ago. Passenger participants can now reserve their seats on a number of space “carriers.” Boeing and Airbus, the global players in the commerical aircraft sector, have spacecraft in development. Deals between NASA and US-based commercial companies have been forged for cargo transport to the ISS. Meanwhile, the international space scene is heating up as more and more countries eye space for their “piece of the pie” in terms of economic gains and national security measures.
Earth, air, space, …. Close your eyes and think of all that space travel entails. The implications of launching, traversing through airspace to suborbital or lower earth orbit (LEO) flight, and then reversing the process to land safely back on earth are far-reaching and complicated.
First, airports and spaceports can have fundmentally different infrastructures, processes and procedures. Does the spacecraft require vertical launch or horizontal takeoff? Conversely, does it necessitate a runway or a landing pad to land? What type of fuel or propellent is needed and how is it stored? What special training and preparations are critical for crew, cargo, and participant? Even with these challenges, airports and spaceports around the world are looking to the future to integrate commercial space transportation into their operations, finding economies of scope in the similarities while managing the differences.
Second, air traffic management becomes more complicated as vehicles traveling to space inherently require a broader swath of groundspace and airspace to be cleared for safety. Airline operations may be impacted, ranging from a slight reroute with minimal impact to the more serious cancellation of a planned flight in order to accommodate a safe space launch or return. Furthermore, with space travel, point-to-point becomes increasingly complex as national airspace boundaries are traversed. Meanwhile, the integration of space traffic management into the Global Air Traffic Management System is in its infancy, if that. Should the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) be involved in setting guidelines? Who has the ‘right of way’ in space and who is liable? Where does a nation’s airspace end and “space” start?
Answers to these questions and more will take time and require collaborative exchanges at all levels. This treatise barely scratches the surface of commercial space transportation and all it entails. Recent successes in reusable launch rockets are a game-changer and, clearly, the integration of air transportation and space transportation will uncover new challenges and opportunities not yet realized. But one thing is certain. The world is on the verge of something grand and exciting, filled with challenges, disappointments, but also the joys of success. My imagination is once again on fire.