Intelligent Machines

The Crowded Skies

Spaceports are being built around the United States to facilitate a wave of space tourists, with six nonfederal spaceports already licensed in locations including New Mexico and Oklahoma. From these ports, companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin plan to operate spacecraft that will provide tourists with at least a peek above the atmosphere. That is causing a headache for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which has to figure out how to integrate space flights into the national air traffic control system.

The problem is that pilots launching into space or returning home cannot make sudden changes in their craft’s altitude and direction in response to an air traffic controller: after an initial rocket boost, most designs are unpowered, gliding or parachuting back to Earth. To avoid the potential for disaster, these flights have been conducted in “sterile airspace,” which establishes a zone from which other aircraft are forbidden.

To date, because space launches are relatively infrequent, it has been possible to establish these zones as needed. But daily flights from multiple locations will necessitate a more systematic approach. The FAA began thinking about this issue in the late 1990s, and last August it established an industry-academic-government Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation to develop new air traffic control rules (and settle other regulatory issues) for the commercial space industry.

This story is part of our March/April 2011 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

Technical developments may also help. For example, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is designed to use hybrid rockets for powered flight after reëntry, potentially allowing at least limited air traffic control.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Basic.

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.