By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Tourists already come to West Hawaii for the beaches, surf and sunshine. But what about a trip to space?
As early as next year, the Kona International Airport could become the state’s first certified spaceport, making it Hawaii’s launching pad for the commercial space industry.
Jim Crisafulli, state Office of Aerospace Development director, said the airport has been selected among 27 potential locations across the islands as the best home for space tourism.
The industry, which is in its infancy, is currently focused on taking wealthy customers into suborbit but could expand to other commercial applications, such as long-distance flights across Earth or the launching of satellites from aircraft, he said.
The office is conducting several studies, including an environmental assessment, so it can seek Federal Aviation Administration approval. Crisafulli expects to start the FAA application process toward the end of the year, with certification coming in the “first or second quarter of 2015” assuming everything goes smoothly.
A public review process is required.
But don’t expect to see any rockets blasting off from Keahole Point.
Crisafulli said suborbital flights would be done with “spaceplanes” that take off and land horizontally like other aircraft.
“These things operate largely like existing aircraft,” he said.
“The only difference is these things go much higher than conventional aircraft.”
About 61 miles, Crisafulli said, which is far enough from the planet to experience weightlessness.
This wouldn’t be the first time the state has shot for the stars.
A few decades ago, a proposal to build a spaceport in Ka‘u died after facing strong community opposition.
While it’s still being studied, Crisafulli believes the impacts of the current proposal would be minor.
“We’re not talking about building new infrastructure,” he said.
The Big Island wouldn’t be alone in such endeavours.
The FAA lists eight active commercial launch sites, from Florida to Alaska.
Crisafulli said the Kona airport was chosen in a site-selection study finished last fall.
He said it reached the top of the list because it has a long enough runway, it’s not next to a highly populated area, and because it doesn’t have congested skies like Honolulu.
The industry also fits right in with West Hawaii’s tourist-oriented economy.
Crisafulli called space tourism the “third dimension” of Hawaii’s visitor industry, and he believes the state should be at the forefront.
“It’s ours to lose,” he said.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.