Kona spaceport study delayed

Keaau isn’t the only place the state has explored the idea of establishing a spaceport in recent years.

In 2014, Jim Crisafulli, who then headed the state Office of Aerospace Development, told the Tribune-Herald that an environmental assessment was being planned in order to grant Kona International Airport with a spaceport certification.

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The idea was that “spaceplanes” could take customers into suborbit or be used to launch satellites.

He hoped then that a certification from the Federal Aviation Administration would be approved in 2015. That didn’t happen, though it’s not clear if an application was submitted. Meanwhile, the EA remains a work in progress.

Chung Chang, who now heads the office, said he’s not sure what happened with the assessment other than “there’s been some stalls.”

“That one we are still trying to finish,” he said. He couldn’t provide a timeline.

The state Legislature approved $250,000 for the Kona spaceport assessment, Chang said, followed by an additional $250,000 in 2017 to study a proposal from Alaska Aerospace Corp. to launch small rockets from land owned by W.H. Shipman. Both came with matching funds, either from the federal government or Alaska Aerospace.

Chang said the Kona assessment is a “little bit more involved” since it would have to co-exist with regular air traffic. He suggested that assessment will still take longer than the one for Keaau, even though that one just started.

Community meetings for the Keaau proposal could be held as early as February.

Craig Campbell, CEO of the corporation, said last month that the site being considered is located “east or northeast” of the Mauna Loa macadamia nut farm.

Chang described the state’s approach as being exploratory.

“We’re not saying we are going to build it,” he said. “We’re trying to determine whether we can do it.”

The attraction for the state is economic development, Chang said.

Spaceports have been a tough sell on Hawaii Island, which has been eyed for launches because of its proximity to the equator and relatively low population density.

Communities where they have been proposed in the past have made it clear they don’t want it in their backyard.

As of last year, a company called SpinLaunch was proposing building a centrifuge to launch small satellites at Pohue Bay in Ka‘u.

The Legislature had authorized $25 million in special purpose revenue bonds to assist the venture, which faced strong opposition from residents at community meetings. The bonds would allow the project to qualify for tax-exempt interest payments.

A representative of the company noted at a meeting in April that it was very unlikely the project would move forward there.

Before that, a spaceport was also proposed for C. Brewer lands in the district, but the idea never took off.

The Alaska Aerospace Corp., founded by the state of Alaska, operates the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska at Kodiak Island. Its website says it has launched “small-lift rockets” as tall as 80 feet and is planning for “medium-lift” rockets up to 180 feet tall.

Officials with the state-owned company say rockets that would launch small satellites from East Hawaii would be considerably smaller, possibly 20 to 40 feet tall.

Chang said he was told rockets would be between 40 and 60 feet in height.

Two rockets being built for small satellite payloads — the Virgin Launcher One and Rocket Lab’s Electron — are between 50 and 60 feet in height.

It’s unclear how many launches would occur on Hawaii Island.

The Alaska spaceport expects three to six launches this year, the Associated Press reported, with demand anticipated to reach 24 launches annually. Customers include both the government and private sector.

One mishap was reported in 2016 when the test of a new Army weapon — a hypersonic glider — failed 4 seconds into flight, causing flight controllers to blow it up, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Debris damaged buildings at the facility but caused no injuries.

“We are going to address that specific situation,” Chang said, when asked about the incident.

He said rockets at the Keaau site would be powered with liquid, rather than solid, fuel. According to Chang, that means they wouldn’t need to be blown up if something went wrong.

“You can turn off the rocket,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to explode it.”

Chang said he wasn’t aware of any plans for military uses of the site, noting a military launch facility already exists on Kauai.

He said the rockets’ path would take them over water, rather than land.

Chang said the satellites could be as small as a soccer ball and would likely be used for imaging.

Using smaller rockets, rather than hitching a ride on a larger one, could make them more cost effective, he said.

“They can fit 10 or 15 in one launch,” Chang said. “It brings the cost down considerably.”

It remains to be seen how the community reacts to the proposal, though some state lawmakers have expressed skepticism.

In response to a notice of pre-assessment consultation, Mayor Harry Kim wrote a letter to Alaska Aerospace Corp. President Mark Lester asking for a “full and careful review.”

“Careful consideration and engagement should be targeted with the residents of East Hawaii and in particular of the Panaewa Homesteads as to any potential impacts and planned mitigation actions,” he wrote.

Chang said he hopes residents keep an open mind.

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“It appears they are overly cautious on making sure they do the right thing,” he said of Alaska Aerospace Corp. “It is not an ordinary project.”

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

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