Front Range Airport: Leading Colorado to the Next Frontier in Space Travel

April 3, 2012

By: Rita M. Connerly

Colorado Real Estate Journal

Colorado’s Front Range Airport could receive spaceport designation by the end of 2012. Created back in 1982 with a vision toward becoming an engine for economic growth, Front Range Airport was developed to serve as a general aviation reliever airport for the state of Colorado. Today, it is the largest general aviation airport in Colorado. With roughly 3,800 acres, the nation’s tallest general aviation control tower, existing infrastructure valued at more than $200 million with access to rail, roads and, obviously, air, the airport is well-positioned to help Colorado maintain its position as the No. 2 space economy in the United States and further enhance the state’s position of prominence within the aerospace community.

To that end, Gov. John Hickenlooper sent a letter on Oct. 31, 2011, to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation requesting that Colorado be recognized as a proposed spaceport state. The Colorado delegation followed the governor’s lead by expressing their unified and strong support for Colorado’s efforts in becoming a spaceport state. In a letter to Dr. George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation, the delegation promoted Colorado’s request for spaceport designation by citing such impressive statistics as Colorado having the highest ranking aerospace engineering programs in the country, consistently topping the list of high-tech graduates each year, Colorado’s long history with military and civilian space operations, its continually growing scientific and aerospace industries, and its level of innovation.

Tom Clark, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., points out that Colorado’s aerospace industry remains one of the strongest pillars of Colorado’s economy. With a diversity of large, medium and small aerospace companies, Colorado can deliver the expertise and collaboration necessary to support federal, state and private research operations. The average salary for a Colorado aerospace worker is nearly $114,000 – that’s approximately 138 percent more than average Colorado salary. The industry, consisting of roughly 400 Colorado companies and suppliers employing more than 163,000 people, generates nearly $3 billion in annual payroll for the state, and since 2005, space employment in Colorado has grown by 6.9 percent.

A lot has been happening at Front Range Airport since it launched its bid for a spaceport license, according to Dennis Heap, executive director of Front Range Airport. The pre-application meeting with the Federal Aviation Administration has been completed and people from all over the world are calling and visiting the airport. While completing the spaceport licensing process, Front Range Airport has signed a long-term lease with Strategic Simulation Solutions to build and operate a full-motion A320 simulator training facility for airline pilots and flight attendants on the airport. The airport is actively negotiating letters of intent with aerospace companies committed to the research, development, testing and manufacturing of new, cost-effective aircraft vehicles, systems and components to support the unmanned aircraft industry and the suborbital transport of cargo and passengers. And, the Airport Authority has formed an alliance with economic development organizations, private industry and academia to pursue an unmanned aircraft system test range for the state of Colorado to support the integration of unmanned vehicles into the national airspace to assist our police, fire and emergency personnel in saving lives threatened by natural and manmade disasters and circumstances.

At the legislative level, Sen. Mary Hodge and Rep. Bob Gardner sponsored Senate Bill 35 to create a legal environment that will support the advancement of technology and the creation of jobs. The bill, with the help of lead lobbyist Danny Tomlinson, passed the Senate on a vote of 35-0 with 24 co-sponsors and hearings in the House are occurring this month. Rep. Amy Stephens recently introduced a job creation bill that will create a new funding mechanism for Front Range Airport to attract new business opportunities and to become a financially viable and sustainable aerospace center.

The spaceport license application will discuss the airport’s ability to support horizontal space launches. Flights will take off from a runway at Front Range Airport just as any other traditional aircraft under the safety of a staffed air traffic control tower. Once the aircraft reaches a height of approximately 50,000 feet above ground level, the aircraft will maneuver into a vertical position to jettison into its suborbital flight pattern transporting cargo and people to anywhere in the world.

The license application highlights Front Range Airport’s remoteness yet proximity to housing, an educated labor force and multimodal facilities.  Located along Interstate 70, and adjacent to the Union Pacific rail line, business entities have access to property, on or immediately adjacent to the airport, to support research, development, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and other industrial uses.   Front Range Airport is also just 22 miles east of Denver’s central business district and six miles southeast of Denver International Airport.  Understanding the synergy created between Denver International Airport and Front Range Airport, Porteos, a 1,287 acre mixed use development project located immediately south of Denver International Airport and north of 56th, recently secured approval to extend Jackson Gap from Pena Boulevard to create a direct connection with 56th Avenue to support development of an economic hub for aerospace and aviation related enterprises.

The Front Range Airport Authority, consisting of five commissioners (Skip Fischer, Barry Gore, Erik Hansen, Alice Nichol and Stephanie Takis) is invested in ensuring that the airport becomes a part of the worldwide network of innovation in commerce, industry and tourism to create valuable jobs, a commercial tax base and a center for education.

* Special thanks to Dennis Heap, executive director of Front Range Airport, for his contributions.