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Kona spaceport plan yet unfit for takeoff

August 16, 2017 - 12:05am

KAILUA-KONA — Space travel poses some significant logistical issues, especially when it takes the form of tourism.

The Office of Aerospace Development, a division of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, has worked for years to obtain a spaceport certification for Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport.

If the airport is granted the certification, tourists in Kona could become quasi-astronauts for a day, boarding a space plane that, propelled by a rocket engine, would lift the aircraft into suborbit before returning to Kona roughly an hour later.

Jim Crisafulli — former state Office of Aerospace Development director, who recently retired — was hopeful an environmental assessment to clear the way for the burgeoning industry in West Hawaii might be completed by the summer of 2016.

But a year later, the assessment is still underway with no firm end in site.

“The timetable for completion of the Environmental Assessment document depends on the community, the State Department of Transportation, and the Federal Aviation Administration,” DBEDT Deputy Director Mary Alice Evans wrote in an email.

She did not provide an approximate date.

Crisafulli told Big Island newspapers last year that timeline extensions prolonging the process were due to FAA procedures.

“The FAA is trying to be as thorough as possible,” he said.

The flights would result in sonic booms, though it is not believed they’d be heard on the island.

After the assessment is complete, public meetings would need to be held. The last such meetings convened on this issue occurred in 2013.

When asked if the spaceport project remained a priority for the state, Evans answered indirectly.

“DBEDT hopes the spaceport project will attract private capital investment and create jobs for Kona residents,” she wrote.

Evans confirmed there has been interest from “several” companies that could provide the service, but nondisclosure agreements were signed and she was thus unable to provide the names.

Those companies would be responsible for the construction of a new amenities at the airport to make the launches possible, including a hangar, an apron and a concrete pad, among others.

Crisafulli said last year that up to 50 flights might be possible annually, but he expected the initial number would be lower.

Evans said she couldn’t guess at the price of such a flight to the consumer.

As to whether or not a spaceport will ever materialize in West Hawaii, Evans couldn’t say one way or the other, but added the Kona site appears advantageous to others.

“That depends on aerospace industry economics, which fluctuate, and whether this specific location offers advantages over competing spaceports,” she wrote. “The initial feasibility discussion indicated Kona International Airport offers a significant advantage.”

Evans continued.

“Space planes will use jet engines to take off and land, identical to the jet planes using the Kona International Airport every day, and be able to ignite their rocket engines far out to sea away from land and people,” she said.

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