LOS ANGELES -- Alaska this month joined the commercial space race after Gov. Walter J. Hickel signed legislation creating a public spaceport authority that includes the power to issue bonds.
The new law establishes the Alaska Aerospace Development Corp., which was created to help the state serve as a base for the exploration and development of space. The Spaceport Florida Authority has been in the forefront of such efforts and was the nation's first to be given explicit power to sell municipal bonds for spaceflight.
But Florida and other locations are "not necessarily the way to go" for all commercial launches, Larry Galloway, Alaska's assistant commissioner for commerce and economic development, said Friday. Mr. Galloway noted, for example, that an Alaska launch site could offer advantages for those satellites requiring a polar orbit. Gov. Hickel "is excited about it" because he supports public-private ventures that diversify the state's economy away from its dependence on oil, a spokeswoman for the governor said.
The Alaska aerospace corporation plans to provide a launch site by leasing the existing Poker Flat Research Range from the University of Alaska. The Poker Flat range, near Fairbanks, already is used extensively for suborbital launches, often in connection with polar research experiments.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is expected this week to meet with a contractor who will kick off work on an economic feasibility study for the aerospace project.
The study will examine what sort of enhancements are needed to handle larger rockets at Poker Flat and will explore the potential commercial demand for such a facility in Alaska, said William H. Scott, executive director of the industrial development authority.
Mr. Galloway added that one corporation already is targeting a 1993 launch date, and about a dozen other companies also are inquiring about potential opportunities in Alaska.
The state is providing about $300,000 in seed money this year to get the aerospace corporation off the ground, thereby enabling it to hire an executive director and lay other administrative groundwork. The governor will appoint the corporation's nine-member board of directors, subject to certain requirements, such as including certain University of Alaska administrators and selecting two members with experience in the aerospace or commercial space industry.
The spaceport authority can issue bonds to fund construction or improvements of launch facilities and other space or aerospace projects. It can pledge rents, fees, charges, or other revenue from the use of its services or facilities to secure the debt.
Except for refunding bonds, the corporation requires legislative approval to issue more than $1 million of debt in a calendar year. It also must seek legislative approval if the annual debt service on all outstanding bonds issued and proposed to be issued exceeds $1 million in a fiscal year.
It remains uncertain how much debt might be required to fund the corporation's operations because the project is in its infancy. Better answers on the potential costs of infrastructure improvements will be available when the feasibility study is completed in about three months, Mr. Scott said.
Other states also have explored sponsoring spaceport facilities. Hawaii, for example, also has its own space development authority.
Florida's authority has made the most progress in exploring municipal bond financings, going as far as to authorize an issue of up to $50 million to fund space support facilities for General Dynamics Corp. at Cape Canaveral.
Two Florida congressmen also have introduced federal legislation to guarantee tax-exempt status for municipal debt issued in support of commercial spaceflight projects.
Under current law, bonds for governmentally owned airports that provide facilities for passengers or employees are tax-exempt and are not subject to state volume caps. The pending legislation would add commercial spaceflight facilities to the airport category and allow spaceport facilities leased from the government to be treated as governmentally owned facilities.
The act establishing the Alaska aerospace corporation says its bonds and other obligations "are issued for an essential public and governmental purpose."
The act also directs the corporation to retain an independent financial adviser to assist in negotiating the sale of bonds or notes to an underwriter.