Kona spaceport certification still being pursued

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Consider it the final frontier of tourism.

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Consider it the final frontier of tourism.

For several years, a small office in the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism has been pursuing a spaceport certification for Kona International Airport, which would make it one of the few hubs for proposed commercial flights into suborbit.

While the idea still isn’t ready for launch, Jim Crisafulli, state Office of Aerospace Development director, said an environmental assessment required for the Federal Aviation Administration certification remains in the works.

He estimates a public meeting regarding its findings could be held this summer, perhaps by late July or early August.

Crisafulli previously estimated the review would be done around the start of the year, but additional questions from the FAA extended the time-frame.

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

“We’ve now been through eight drafts of this environmental assessment.”

Space tourism itself remains an idea. But Hawaii’s position as a major tourist destination makes it a good candidate for this emerging industry, assuming it takes off, Crisafulli said.

“We’re reaching for the stars,” he said. “We think this has great potential.”

Crisafulli said most spaceplanes would take off like any commercial jet before igniting rockets over the ocean to reach suborbit.

“It’s not going to be another Ka‘u,” he said, referring to a controversial plan to build a spaceport capable of launching rockets there a few decades ago.

New airport infrastructure would include a “hangar, apron, concrete pad for loading oxidizer and an associated taxiway, vehicle parking area, and FAA-approved fencing,” according to the FAA.

The flights would generate sonic booms off the West Hawaii coast. A consultation letter the FAA sent to Native Hawaiian groups last year suggests it’s unlikely the booms will be heard on the island.

It outlined use of three different aircraft, two of which would generate sonic booms on re-entry about 60 miles from shore at 80,000 feet above the ocean, with another generating them as close as 20 miles to the island at an altitude of 300,000 feet.

“The sonic booms would impact the water surface of the Pacific Ocean and would not be expected to be heard on land,” the letter says.

Up to 50 space flights could occur each year, according to the letter. Crisafulli expects the industry would start much smaller.

If the certification is approved, space tourism companies then would be able to apply for their own individual licenses to use the airport. That process could easily take a year or more, depending on whether a full environmental impact statement is required, he said.

“It’s not right around the corner,” Crisafulli added.

Kirstin Kahaloa, executive director of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, said the business group hasn’t heard enough yet about the idea to have an opinion.

She said its members are interested in hearing more.

“Diversification is important to the chamber,” she said.

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“I think our chamber needs to learn more about it.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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