Florida airport gets commercial spaceport license

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The sky’s no longer the limit for Cecil Field airport in Jacksonville, Florida.

The airport was awarded a federal license on Monday to fly commercial space vehicles being designed to ferry tourists, researchers and others beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

The Jacksonville Aviation Authority, which worked to get its commercial spaceport licensing for four years, plans to offer Cecil Field’s 12,500-foot (3,810 meter) long, 200-foot (61 meter) wide runway -- one of the biggest in Florida -- to a range of commercial space operators including Virgin Galactic.

The company, owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, last month unveiled the first of six planned suborbital spaceships which initially will fly out of a commercial spaceport in California. Virgin Galactic, which is selling tickets for $200,000 per seat, is building a base in New Mexico.

“The big difference between Cecil Field and the New Mexico spaceport is that we have facilities already in place,” said Todd Lindner, who has been overseeing development of the Jacksonville spaceport.

Cecil Field becomes the country’s eighth licensed commercial spaceport and the first in Florida cleared to fly space vehicles that take off and land horizontally, like airplanes.

“This is a relatively new component to the space industry,” Lindner told Reuters.

“Up until this point, people are automatically assuming space launches are vertical because we all grew up watching the rockets go up from the Cape.”

In addition to suborbital passenger flights like those Virgin is offering, Cecil Field hopes to offer commercial orbital launch services staged from the suborbital craft.

Lindner said the Jacksonville Aviation Authority is working with several potential customers, but declined to identify them. A study to estimate the potential economic benefit of the spaceport is pending.

“This is giving us options that we didn’t have,” Lindner said.

Editing by Tom Brown and Steve Gutterman