With a projected $225 million being spent to create a "purpose-built"
spaceport near Upham, New Mexico — expected to be completed by
2009-2010 — for many of the principals involved there remains but one
question: what is a 21st century spaceport supposed to look like?
Bulldozers have yet to start pushing dirt
around. Nonetheless, near-term and future users of the spaceport are
ready to bring their respective countdowns into the area.
last year, British entrepreneur, Richard Branson, decided to park the
world headquarters of his Virgin Galactic spaceline in New Mexico and
to use the Southwest Regional Spaceport as the company’s primary
Furthermore, the state’s quest to build a
spaceport has also become a magnet for rocket builders Starchaser
Industries, launch specialists UP Aerospace, the annual X Prize Cup and
the Rocket Racing League.
Mexico spaceport advocates also envision the project as one of
"national significance" — capable of supporting NASA and other U.S.
government agencies too. International space agencies can contract with
the private sector to loft passengers and payloads from the spaceport
to the International Space Station and to the Moon.
proposed spaceport site is approximately 27 square miles of open,
generally level, range land that can be found 45 miles north of Las
Cruces and 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences. This site was picked
for its low population density, uncongested airspace, and high
ideal rocket country for UP Aerospace of Unionville, Connecticut. They
are readying their SpaceLoft XL rocket for a New Mexico spaceport
sendoff in late March. This opening rocket launch is to set the stage
for a series of space liftoffs planned for the Southwest Regional
Aerospace launch facility involves use of a large concrete pad holding
a hydraulically controlled, custom-built rocket rail that’s painted
pristine white "and will be a visually stunning structure at the
spaceport," said Eric Knight, the group’s Chief Executive Officer.
on-site temporary structures that are to be utilized include a Launch
Control Center, a Payload Assembly and Integration building, a mobile
Rocket Assembly and Integration facility that moves on top of the
concrete launch pad, and a high-tech Doppler sonic detection and
ranging weather station. "Miles of roads are also being enhanced to
support the operations of the new space launch facility," Knight added.
just about complete with the manufacturing of our SpaceLoft XL vehicle
for the spaceport’s inaugural space mission," Knight said.
partnership with New Mexico goes well beyond launching rockets," Knight
pointed out. The UP Aerospace agreement with New Mexico includes
providing data about their rocket flights to assist the spaceport in
acquiring its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) license.
upcoming flight in March is sold out. That is, commercial and
educational sectors represent 11 customer payloads set to fly onboard
the suborbital rocket.
booking payloads and experiments on another two flights this year …
and multiple flights in 2007. We’re on track to ramp up to 30 space
launches per year by 2008," Knight advised SPACE.com. The SpaceLoft XL
will zoom to some 70 miles (113 kilometers) altitude.
the rocket returns from space it separates into two elements — an upper
nosecone-payload section and a lower rocket-booster section — both of
which are recovered by parachutes down range. The entire flight, from
launch to touchdown, takes about 15 minutes, Knight said.
Starchaser Industries Inc. set up business in
New Mexico over a year ago, qualifying it as the first private space
firm to locate to the region. The group’s U.S. operations are being run
from offices in Las Cruces.
are very pleased to be here" said Steve Bennett, Chief Executive
Officer for Starchaser Industries. "The 4,000 foot elevation, great
weather and close proximity to the restricted airspace controlled by
the White Sands Missile Range make for an ideal launch area," he told
has taken on their first local employees, Bennett added, hiring in the
fields of management, educational outreach and sales. They are now on
the lookout for people to fill various engineering slots.
The rocket company is also evaluating land
options in Southern New Mexico with a view to building a research and
development and launch vehicle manufacturing plant, he said.
Starchaser Industries is busy at work on two major engineering efforts, dubbed Skybolt and Thunderstar.
is a low-cost reusable liquid propellant sounding rocket. Its liquid
oxygen/kerosene propulsion system is designated STORM and will be test
fired in March from a military establishment in Northern England prior
to all up, full duration static firings that will take place in New
is to launch reentry bodies to gain data for the Thunderstar project.
It is also on tap to fly a number of related systems in support of
Starchaser’s overall space tourism initiative. The first Skybolt rocket
is scheduled for launch out of the New Mexico spaceport in early 2007.
said the relatively low acceleration of the Skybolt system makes it
ideal for lofting delicate payloads, like crystal growth experiments,
that could not normally be flown on a traditional sounding rocket.
Thunderstar rocket, Bennett explained, will be tasked to launch
tourists into space along a ballistic trajectory. A fleet of four
Thunderstar-class vehicles are to be built, each having a seating
capacity for two crewmembers and up to six fare-paying passengers.
Flights will be priced at around $160,000 and could commence as early
as 2008, Bennett said.
Money, money, money
it’s obvious that picking the place to plant a spaceport in New Mexico
is a matter of location, location, location … it’s also an issue of
first things first. And that means money, money, money.
Last week, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson presented his State of the State address to New Mexicans.
spotlighted the still-to-be-okayed spaceport to his fellow lawmakers:
"We will continue to build strong economic momentum — like the
cutting-edge agreement the State negotiated with Virgin Galactic to
build the world’s first spaceport for commercial space flight."
spaceport is a promising endeavor for New Mexico, Richardson reported,
with a projected long-term economic impact of $752 million dollars and
nearly 5,800 jobs.
That aside, future projections are one thing … up front money is another.
of our effort right now is focused on securing the funding to build the
spaceport," said New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans,
also Chairman of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. "Starchaser, UP
Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, Rocket Racing … won’t be able to do
business in New Mexico unless we have a spaceport," he told SPACE.com.
said that New Mexico legislators are coming to grips with the
investment of $225 million for New Mexico’s commercial spaceport. A
legislative session is now underway, one that could shake loose $135
million of state money to kick-start spaceport construction.
that funding, a request for proposals would be issued for spaceport
architecture and engineering services by the end of February or early
March, Homans said. In early July the selected firm would be under
contract, he said, and they would develop the construction bid to be
issued first quarter of 2007.
would coincide perfectly with the timing of our license review and
approval by the FAA. If all goes well, we hope to have that process
completed by the end of 2006," Homans said. "We can’t do anything
permanent and begin any spaceport construction until we’ve completed
our environmental impact statement … which leads to the issuance of
the license from the FAA."
The idea of a New Mexico spaceport was first
proposed 15 years ago. Thanks to breakthroughs in technology, space
travel is much more affordable and space is all the more accessible,
Homans said. "What we’ve been doing is waiting for the industry. And
that industry arrived on our watch."
basic infrastructure of a spaceport is fairly conventional, Homans
said. Roads, water, power, as well as runways and vertical launch
facilities. Spaceports already dot the world, from Russia, China,
French Guiana to several such facilities here in the United States.
doesn’t seem to me that the infrastructure of the spaceport is what is
revolutionary and different," Homans advised. "It’s the vehicles that
fly from the spaceport that will be revolutionary and different."
Still, there are some practical issues ahead.
need to build enough to accommodate the industry that is there now …
and to stay a little bit ahead of it," Homans noted. The key is not to
blueprint some grandiose vision trying to second-guess technology
breakthroughs, he said.
Expandable and responsive
spaceport must be designed and built to be easily expandable and
responsive to the industry as it emerges, Homans added. "That’s the
challenge, I think. Not to get carried away from the beginning."
example, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital passenger operations will make
use of a super-huge version of the Scaled Composites White Knight
carrier craft. That aircraft design was fabricated to tote the
SpaceShipOne rocket plane up to release altitude for its trio of
record-setting suborbital hops.
the New Mexico spaceport, a lengthy and wide runway with a certain
amount of reinforcement and strength to it will be required to handle
White Knight 2 suborbital runs conducted by Virgin Galactic.
into the future of New Mexico’s spaceport — out five to ten years —
air-launches of Earth-orbit bound spaceships would call for a beefed up
runway. "We don’t want to go back and rip up runway. We want to adapt
it to the new technology," Homans said.
Grace Smith, the FAA’s Associate Administrator for Commercial Space
Transportation said time will tell how distinctive New Mexico’s
spaceport proves to be.
a number of ways, it’s already unique. It clearly has the governor’s
full support. The legislature is engaged. Other prominent leaders have
spoken well of it. Community interest is high, and it has gained
national, even international, attention," Smith told SPACE.com.
this new will continue to generate plenty of discussion. It’s
exciting," Smith explained. "Projects involving so many people and
issues will face questions … nothing wrong with questions. That’s why
people want to go into space in the first place, in search of answers
for science, for service, and for themselves."