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“From a tractor pull to a spaceport”: Paso Robles looks to become a hub for the space industry

The Paso Robles Municipal Airport.
City of Paso Robles
The Paso Robles Municipal Airport.

The Central Coast is emerging as a hub for the space industry, with local governments and institutions like Cal Poly San Luis Obispo trying to attract workers in that field from Southern California and the Bay Area.

Now, the City of Paso Robles wants to join this trend by bringing a “spaceport” to the city.

The development of the spaceport would be through a license from the Federal Aviation Administration, rather than any new construction or infrastructure.

“That’s what we’re looking into pursuing — applying for a spaceport license for our existing airport, the Paso Robles Airport," said Paso Robles Economic Development Manager Paul Sloan.

The only spaceport on the West Coast right now is in the Mojave Desert. And unlike bigger bases like Vandenberg or Cape Canaveral which launch vertical rockets, Paso Robles’ potential spaceport would conduct horizontal launches.

Horizontal launches are "next-generation craft called space planes, which take off and land horizontally from traditional airport infrastructure," Sloan said.

Ryan Nugent with Cal Poly's Cubesat Lab said the spaceport would create more opportunities for students.
Ryan Nugent with Cal Poly's Cubesat Lab said the spaceport would create more opportunities for students.

The spaceport idea has support from Cal Poly, whose engineering department says it would benefit from the presence of a spaceport nearby campus — specifically the university’s Cubesat Laboratory, which creates miniaturized satellites called Cubesats.

Ryan Nugent, the lab’s director, said launching the Cubesats from Paso Robles would be much easier than Vandenberg, which has strict security protocols. And he said there are other benefits, too.

“This would definitely be a lot easier for us to do in a number of ways from access and availability, but then there would also be a lot of opportunity for companies to do things that they do in our lab, but to be able to do them for commercial companies," Nugent said.

Nugent said it would also benefit Cal Poly students by attracting more companies to the area.

“It would be nice to have more companies that are closer to home to be able to work with, but then to also have our students be able to have summer internships closer to San Luis Obispo and those types of things as well," Nugent said.

Paul Sloan said the spaceport license process takes several years, but as far as the technical aspect, a recent review commissioned by the city found “no fatal flaws” with the project.

“And in their executive summary they used a word I can understand, which says it’s ‘doable,'" Sloan said.

According to Sloan, the city is looking at obtaining the license around 2024, if everything goes according to plan. He said it’s all very exciting.

“It is kind of fun for a cowboy town to go from the tractor pull to a spaceport, but Paso has done crazier things than that. We grow wine now, you know?”

A recording of the March 29 Paso Robles City Council meeting discussing the spaceport is available here, and more on the Cubesat Lab is available here.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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