Flying to space? You may take off from what looks very much like an airport

Virgin Galactic

For 53 years, humans’ travel to space has worked in generally the same way: astronauts climb into a cramped cockpit high up in a giant rocket and then take a shaky ride through Earth’s atmosphere.

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But many of the emerging generation of private spacecraft targeted at the (rich) layperson throw out the vertical rocket design in favor of ships that look very much like airplanes. They take off and land on runways and sport comfy seats more reminiscent of Air Force One than Apollo 11.

The United Kingdom is planning to build a spaceport that can provide the same polished experience that the private space industry plans to offer in-flight, and it looks a lot like any airport. A report published this week names eight potential sites for the spaceport in England, Wales and Scotland and plans for an opening in 2018.

A mockup of the planned UK spaceport. Photo courtesy of the UK Space Agency.

A mockup of the planned UK spaceport. Photo courtesy of the UK Space Agency.

The spaceport could also serve commercial interests, which are likely to be even more successful given that private companies like SpaceX are slowly taking over tasks like ferrying cargo to the International Space Station from governments. Europe already has a commercial spaceport, but it is located in the northernmost town in Sweden — 62 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

“It’s great to see the U.K. establishing itself in the human spaceflight arena,” Bigelow Aerospace head of operations Mike Gold told New Scientist. “Nations that ignore new opportunities developing in both suborbital and orbital space transportation run the risk of being left behind.”

The U.S. already has a spaceport in New Mexico. SpaceX is also in the process of building its first 100 percent commercial spaceport in Texas, and as the number of private launches grows, the number of countries with their own ports will also continue to expand. The U.K. report notes that Virgin Galactic and Xcor both plan to launch their first flights in the next few years and currently have few options for places to take off on a runway.

The decision between the eight potential locations will come down to factors like weather, remoteness and proximity to a coast. There also needs to be room for extra-long runways. New Scientist notes that the political situation in Scotland, which is home to six of the eight proposed locations, could come into play.

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