FAA advances proposal for landing low-orbit spacecraft at Huntsville airport

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Huntsville airport starts work on spaceport proposal

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Work continues on a proposal to make Huntsville International Airport a site for commercial space operations.

This month the Federal Aviation Administration posted information about the proposal from the Huntsville-Madison County Airport Authority and Sierra Space to make the airport a commercial space reentry site.

Sierra Space is proposing to use the site to land its Dream Chaser vehicle when it returns from carrying payloads into low-earth orbit.

The airport authority’s proposal on the FAA website shows reentry operations would happen at Runway 18L/36R. According to the proposal, Dream Chaser landings would come from the southwestern U.S. or Central America. The vehicle would stay above 60,000 feet until it was about 10 to 20 miles from the airport. It would then land within three to four minutes.

The FAA said the airport authority is seeking a reentry site operator license; Sierra Space also would need a vehicle operator license to use the airport.

Those applications have not been submitted, according to the FAA. Once they are, the FAA said it would evaluate a number of factors — including safety, environmental impacts, airspace integration and the site location — before making a decision on issuing licenses.

Huntsville airport starts work on proposal to land aircraft from space
(NASA image)

A Huntsville International Airport spokesperson said the FAA’s posting of the proposal is just part of the “preliminary general exploratory process.”

The Dream Chaser would not be able to launch from Huntsville, because it is designed to be carried as a payload on an Atlas V, made by United Launch Alliance. It would begin its mission somewhere where vertical launches are supported, such as Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Sierra Space plans to send cargo on the Dream Chaser to the International Space Station. According to the FAA, the company also would offer disposal services that would entail releasing items over the open ocean that would burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

A first phase of the project to bring Dream Chaser to Huntsville was finished in 2015, with a compatibility study that looked at the airport’s runways. The airport authority said in 2017 it had begun the process of applying for a permit.

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