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Paso Robles officials believe a spaceport is the ticket to the city's future 

Space. Launches. Lift-off.

For Paso Robles' residents, those words could sound like something straight from a science fiction movie. But they could become a realistic possibility if the Paso Robles Municipal Airport gets to a place where it could not only launch commercial aircraft, but also space jets.

click to enlarge OUTER LIMITS Spaceplanes could be taking off from the Paso Robles Municipal Airport if the city's plans for a spaceport come to fruition. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF PASO ROBLES
  • File Photo Courtesy Of Paso Robles
  • OUTER LIMITS Spaceplanes could be taking off from the Paso Robles Municipal Airport if the city's plans for a spaceport come to fruition.

The idea to build a spaceport at the Paso airport was conceived nearly a year and a half ago at a lunch meeting between city Mayor Steve Martin, Economic Development Manager Paul Sloan, and Airport Commissioner and Cal Poly Chief Information Officer Bill Britton.

Britton first suggested the idea of building a spaceport as a way to expand Cal Poly's CubeSat Laboratory program. The program allows students to build miniature satellites, commonly known as cubesats, to be launched into space.

"One of the shortfalls of that program is that the students will build a satellite and then they can wait as many as five years to launch that platform because they're waiting for a ride-sharing on one of the larger vertical lift platforms," Britton said.

The idea grabbed Martin's attention and bloomed into a way to facilitate potential economic development in Paso and provide future jobs for Cal Poly and Cuesta College graduates. Paso Robles' two biggest sources of revenue currently come from the wine and tourism industries. But when the pandemic hit, Martin said he realized how fragile those industries were.

"We decided that the space industry and the accompanying tech industry would be a good new business sector for the city that would attract good high paying jobs, provide opportunities for local students who go to college and get engineering degrees," Martin said. "And then down the road in the future would provide new sources of revenue for the citizens in the city of Paso Robles."

Martin wrote to Britton in April 2021, asking him to work with Sloan to "develop technical advice and strategic recommendations that can be reviewed by our Airport Commission and City Council."

Five months later, the City Council gave the duo the green light to speak with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials to see if a spaceport was feasible for Paso Robles.

"We kept waiting for someone to say no, that's not for you, or you're just dumb," Sloan said.

Instead, he said that the feedback they received was encouraging.

By January 2022, the city had commissioned a technical review from Tartaglia Engineering to determine the feasibility of a spaceport. Three months later, the report came back with positive news—constructing a spaceport in Paso was possible. By April, companies were contacting Sloan and Britton expressing interest in the spaceport. The city has signed letters of intent with three companies and Cal Poly, but Sloan said that more than a dozen companies have expressed interest.

The plan for a spaceport is twofold. First, Paso must gain its spaceport license to begin any work related to the project. The city expects to submit its license application to the FAA by May 2023. Second, the city wants to expand its tech corridor. According to Economic Manager Sloan, the tech corridor aims to spur regional development by using the city-owned land around the airport for business and tech parks.

"[We started off] with the tech corridor and bringing jobs [to Paso Robles] and the spaceport just popped up," Sloan said. "Looking at space tech is more fun than other kinds of tech because it's space and everyone gets excited."

Martin said that the project will impact SLO County and its neighboring counties, including Monterey, Kern, and Santa Barbara.

"So right now we are engaged with the city of Atascadero in developing a North County broadband strategy so that we can apply for the funding necessary to bring in the type of fiber optic and other networks that will support a tech quarter and a space industry," Martin said.

When most people think about space, they usually envision big rockets blasting off, Sloan said. But that wouldn't be the case in Paso Robles. The goal is to have a horizontal launch where spaceplanes take off from a traditional runway.

"They fly up to low Earth orbit, they deploy their payloads, and then they come back down and land back on the runway, horizontally," Sloan said. "And the payloads that they are delivering are cubesats."

Residents have expressed concerns about noise and pollution from the jets. One such resident, Nancy Mello, shared those concerns during an Aug. 3, 2021, City Council meeting discussion about the spaceport. She told New Times that people who live near the airport might have to deal with loud spaceplanes launching and the dirt and dust that could come from construction.

"Nobody really knows what it's going to do, and so that's why I was concerned," Mello told New Times. "I don't think we know enough yet. I'm all for it. If that's—if it goes through."

Airport Commissioner Britton said that the city has tried to raise awareness, listen to residents, and address their concerns at public meetings and forums.

"Everything that we're looking at is a much more eco friendly, noise friendly platform," Britton said. "So we have several aircraft that are at the airport today. All of them are rated at a higher decibel level than any of the space platforms that we are looking at."

Paso is looking at aircraft models with a hydrogen-based platform, he said, which is not only quiet, but also has green, non-carbon-based emissions. The cubesats they would carry from Cal Poly students could be used for anything from crop management to communications.

"I think for Cal Poly students, not only is there the post graduating experience, but during school, there's the opportunity to launch platforms that they build and design and don't have to wait for years to do it," Britton said. "There's internships that are generated. There's opportunities to work on studies and projects and research."

He also hopes that building a spaceport will interest teenagers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs that could lead to careers.

"We're seeing this continuing rolling effect of positive use of technology and people for the betterment of our region," Britton added.

Cal Poly sees the benefits for its students and beyond, which incentivized the university to become a partner with the city, Martin said, and help with the spaceport license application process.

"We anticipate that the proposal that Cal Poly is making to us to do all of this work is for about $110,000—and that's about 10 percent of what we expected to spend," Martin said.

While getting a spaceport license could lead to the next phase of conversations with companies that have expressed interest, for now, the spaceport is still a pipe dream that could come to fruition in the next two to three years. As Sloan said, Paso's still in the early stages.

"It's interesting how it's creating its own gravity, it's bringing people to us," Sloan said of the spaceport. "It does not mean we will be successful, but we're continuing forward to see where the path takes us." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Shwetha Sundarrajan at shwetha@newtimesslo.com.

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