Chicago Firm May Use Columbus Freight Airport for Space Flights

Forget science fiction. Space tourists could be flying from Rickenbacker Airport if a Chicago company picks Columbus for its primary U.S. operations.

PlanetSpace is looking at the airport as a location for launches of space-shuttlelike craft by as soon as late 2008, as well as a place to build spacecraft.

Officials from the airport authority, state and Columbus Chamber have been meeting with the company, which also has operations in Canada.

"We're very serious about locating in Ohio," said Chirinjeev Kathuria, chairman of PlanetSpace. "We think it has a good manufacturing environment. Rickenbacker is one of the longer runways in the U.S. There are astronaut training facilities there," he said, referring to NASA's John H. Glenn Center in Cleveland.

David Whitaker, vice president of business development for the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, said the project is a real opportunity for Columbus, even though space tourism seems like a far-fetched concept to many people.

PlanetSpace said it expects to employ 500 people within three years after setting up operations.

"Space-based business is very new, but it's definitely coming very soon. Many states are actively courting this industry," Whitaker said. "Planet-Space will land somewhere, and we hope that will be in Columbus. We're very excited about the possibility."

Kathuria and President and CEO Geoff Sheerin run PlanetSpace from Chicago. Sheerin is founder of PlanetSpace partner Canadian Arrow, a London, Ontario, rocket maker.

The two men have extensive experience in the aerospace business; Kathuria was involved with MirCorp, the venture that sent billionaire Dennis Tito into space for $20 million in 2001.Company officials said privately-held PlanetSpace has $200 million committed from a combination of shareholders, private equity groups and banks to cover startup costs. Manufacturing and related research and development, along with space tourism, would be among the first activities to take place in central Ohio if PlanetSpace were to locate here.

Within 10 years, the company hopes to test suborbital point-to-point flights, where craft could deliver passengers halfway around the world in a matter of 30 minutes or so.

Kathuria said PlanetSpace has discussed financial incentives with Ohio officials, and the company is waiting on a proposal from the state before deciding on a location. He said the company needs to make a decision by March.

Development officials declined to comment on talks they have held with the company.

"As you can imagine, a lot of other states and other countries have approached us," Kathuria said.

The company already has struck a deal with the Canadian province of Nova Scotia to create a launch site in Cape Breton. That deal was announced in August.

Ohio would join other states, including New Mexico and Oklahoma, in betting on space tourism as an economic engine. A late 2005 study conducted for New Mexico's economic-development department estimated an annual benefit worth $460 million within 10 years for the proposed Southwest Regional Spaceport.

On Wednesday, New Mexico unveiled plans for the $225 million spaceport center to be based on state-owned land 45 miles north of Las Cruces. The anchor tenant will be Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

Kathuria said PlanetSpace has a list of 3,000 people ready to sign up for a quick half-hour trip into space at $200,000 a pop. Virgin Galactic, probably the highest-profile firm looking to get into space tourism, has said it has a waiting list of 50,000, Kathuria said.

Kathuria, 40, a native of India, also has plans to sell a reality show based in space to a major network. He says he's in discussions with several producers.

Whitaker said the economic benefit to central Ohio could far exceed the immediate benefit of hundreds of space tourists passing through town.

"We expect a quarter of a million people to attend next year's Mustangs and Legends event," he said, referring to a showcase for World War II-era planes and pilots to be held in Columbus. "Imagine how many people would turn out to see people launched into outer space."

The Columbus Chamber was brought in to assist with pitching Columbus as a place to do business. It has held numerous phone and face-to-face conversations with the company.

"Our central location is certainly a major selling point," said Matthew McCollister, vice president of economic development for the chamber of commerce.

McCollister said no incentive offers have been made, a point echoed by Melissa Ament, spokeswoman for the state department of development. Ament said at least three meetings have taken place since September between state development representatives and PlanetSpace executives.

One of the largest recent incentive packages was made to Skybus Airlines, which plans to begin service in the spring from Columbus. The airline was granted a combined $57 million in benefits from the city, state and the airport authority. Nearly half that amount is coming from the airport authority in the form of improvements at Port Columbus.

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