CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – For rent: 15,000-foot runway. Aircraft hangar included. Affordable. Historic. Scenic Florida location.
That's how a classified advertisement might read if NASA advertised its plan to make some money on the long air strip normally used by space shuttles.
As the shuttle program shuffles to its close in 2010, the pristine runway will be used less and less. No reason it should sit empty — especially with commercial space flight about to take off.
"We've invited companies to test drive the shuttle landing facility," said Jim Ball, the NASA official who is spearheading private business ventures at Kennedy. "The key No. 1 thing we wish to demonstrate is that the Kennedy Space Center is willing to support missions other than space."
The space agency already has sought proposals, and under one deal being negotiated, landing fees would likely be slightly higher than the $300 to $700 per flight charged at regular airports.
The space center hosted its first private venture last month — the takeoff of adventurer Steve Fossett in Virgin Atlantic's experimental plane, which set a flight distance record.
NASA charged nearly $5,000 for use of the runway, hangar, fuel, equipment and airfield services for that one-time deal. Future private flights will be scheduled around the remaining 17 shuttle missions.
The shuttle landing strip never got the full use it was built for in the 1970s. NASA had predicted then that the shuttles would fly anywhere from 12 to 50 times a year, but the most flights the space agency got in a single year was nine in 1985.
After the shuttle's retirement, the next-generation space vehicle will return to Earth by parachute.
In the past, NASA's nine other space centers have invited outsiders from academia or other government agencies to use their facilities. But none has offered anything as high-profile as the Kennedy landing strip, which millions have seen during televised shuttle landings.
Officials at Kennedy Space Center started seeking proposals for non-NASA uses of the shuttle runway last year. The most promising seemed to be from Virgin Atlantic to sponsor Fossett's flight, and from Zero Gravity Corp., a Fort Lauderdale business that offers customers a few moments of weightlessness in a Boeing 727-200.
"They see that as part of their future. We're a discovery project for them, to discover new uses for the shuttle landing facility," Fossett said. "As far as Kennedy is concerned, it's a great runway, a runway in perfect condition, equal to the longest available in the United States."
The contract with Virgin Atlantic and Fossett, which is considered the blueprint for future similar arrangements, required NASA approval for any use of its name in Virgin Atlantic promotions. However, the company appeared more interested in promoting itself than the space agency, touting its own logo at news conferences.
Kennedy Space Center officials also used the Fossett flight as a chance to rub elbows with two pioneers of commercial space that might bring future business to Florida.
Virgin Atlantic's chief, Richard Branson, has announced the development of a $225 million spaceport in southern New Mexico. Officials with aerospace company Scaled Composites, which built Fossett's plane, also constructed SpaceShipOne, the suborbital spaceship that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately financed manned rocket to reach space.
Kennedy officials are completing a contract with Zero Gravity that would allow its plane to take off from the space center carrying passengers who pay $3,750 for a seat to briefly experience weightlessness through jet acrobatics. Under the proposal, the company would pay landing fees comparable to commercial airlines at airports.
"We want to give people an experience of floating in the air like they're Superman or an astronaut," said Noah McMahon, Zero Gravity's chief marketing officer. "They'll be able to do it from the place where real astronauts actually land in the shuttle."