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"NASA seeks private users for shuttle runway"

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

NASA seeks private users for shuttle runway 
The Associated Press 

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."

On the Net:

NASA at www.nasa.gov

Zero Gravity at http://www.nogravity.com/

Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer at http://www.virginatlanticglobalflyer.com/

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