I see that someone has gone to considerable length to reply to my recent arguments concerning the economics of proposed “spaceports”. The author apparently saw nothing amiss with the notion that it’s OK to create a theme park atmosphere to attract customers at some level or another. In so doing, he unwittingly grants me the argument that commercial space tourism might never be able carry the load on its own to allow a spaceport to pay for itself. So instead we’ll create a circus atmosphere with a few launches thrown in for the “ooooh-ahhhh!” factor. And that was the entire point of my piece.
While I mentioned the long term potential of point-to-point suborbital flight, I never suggested that it would be the “killer app” justifying spaceports, but rather a long term commercial justification for heavy investment in the technology itself. Such craft may not ultimately require a “spaceport”, perhaps a major-sized international airport, retrofit with custom facilities, would suffice – I don’t know. But either way, whatever scenario plays out will be a long time in coming.
Where our understanding breaks down, perhaps, is in the use of the term “spaceport” itself.
By common convention, a “port” is a place where people or cargo embark or disembark to or from other places. The business of a port is to achieve this as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. No more, no less. They manage lots of traffic into and out of their hub of influence, because that’s all their customers expect of them. If we stick with the gaming analogy, these people don’t “play golf with only one club”, because they’re not playing golf at all. They’re playing darts – all tightly focused on a single goal – get something from here to somewhere else, or get something from somewhere else safely here – and they want to hit bullseyes every time, 24/7/365.
People go to “airports” because they are going somewhere, and are focused on getting there as quickly and comfortably as possible. The design and function of airports support that singular purpose. While there are many 3rd-party support services that airports offer, from food to magazines to liquor to internet access, it is still with the understanding that their customers are just “passing through”, for a handful of hours at most, so the marketing goal is one of convenience, solving a personal emergency, or encouraging a last minute “impulse buy” before getting on the plane.
“Seaports” move massive amounts of cargo that we import from foreign lands off of container ships to waiting trains and trucks, which in turn move those goods to other destinations further inland, where those who purchased the goods are patiently waiting. Those containers are refilled with US-made goods to transport, via the same ports, to buyers in other nations.
In short, those things we call “ports” exist to serve travel and commerce, and nothing else. They are not tourist play destinations.
So when I hear the word “spaceport“, I envision something similar, a place through which people and goods are moved efficiently and economically from point to point, only the “points” we think of are either on the opposite side of the planet, or off the planet entirely. But you don’t go there to gamble, to engage in “space entertainment” or just to watch a launch (unless a friend or relative is about to take a flight).
Plus, if some miracle happened, and we really did one day get all that passenger traffic promised by the kool-aid sellers, wouldn’t all those milling about, partying non-travelers just get in the way? How would LaGuardia, for example, which moves up to 25,000 passengers a day, function if a lot of non-traveling people showed up and just hung around for hours and days, clogging the parking lots, access roads, and restaurants? A potential “spaceport” in particular, may have other problems associated with it (such as noise or exotic fuel handling) that would require it to be much further removed from the nearest hub of civilization, thus creating a specific marketing challenge in attracting people to go the extra distance. This could be mitigated by requiring space tourist vehicles be limited to smaller craft that piggyback on more conventional jets – but again, those could conceivably be launched from more conventional airports, thus obviating the need for and expense of a specialized facility.
If one grants (however reluctantly) that traffic alone won’t even come close to covering the expenses, then perhaps a multifunction theme park is the best way to make the business case for those the promoters want to foot the startup costs. But if non space launch activities are touted as being the largest proportion of total business, as a potential investor I would still want to know precisely how these activities contribute to the total bottom line. And I would still submit that this is NOT a “spaceport”. It’s something else, but it’s not a spaceport, and therefore anyone who insists on calling it that is being disingenuous – especially to potential investors.
Ports and theme parks are conflicting, and therefore incompatible entities, as they serve entirely different functions. One can’t effectively combine them into a single thing. All I’m suggesting is that promoters of such, in the space commerce arena, should exhibit more honesty in their intentions.