WASHINGTON — The next phase of Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s (SpaceX) experimental Grasshopper program, a key part of the Hawthorne, Calif., rocket maker’s attempt to build a reusable space booster, will be based at New Mexico’s Spaceport America under the terms of a three-year lease the spaceport announced May 7.

From Spaceport America, which is about 50 kilometers southeast of Truth or Consequences, N.M., and about 60 kilometers west of the restricted air space over the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range, Grasshopper could fly much higher than the 760-meter ceiling the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposed for launches from SpaceX’s rocket test site in McGregor, Texas. 

“Spaceport America offers us the physical and regulatory landscape needed to complete the next phase of Grasshopper testing,” Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said in the Spaceport’s May 7 press release about the lease.

Essentially, that means SpaceX “can fly [Grasshopper] at higher altitudes and along different trajectories” than those allowed at McGregor, SpaceX spokeswoman Christina Ra said May 9. 

Spaceport America, under a commercial spaceport license the FAA issued in 2008, is permitted to host suborbital launches that fly nearly 15 times higher than Grasshopper can fly from SpaceX’s McGregor test site. 

“We’re good for about 350,000 feet,” or roughly 100 kilometers, Christine Anderson, executive director of Spaceport of America, said in a phone interview May 8. That altitude is the internationally recognized boundary of space. 

Under the terms of the three-year deal, which was signed in late April, SpaceX will pay Spaceport America $6,600 a month to lease a launchpad and a small mission control facility, Ra said. Anderson said SpaceX also will pay a $25,000 fee for every Grasshopper flight from the commercial spaceport.

Ra said SpaceX’s lease will not be active until the company moves in at Spaceport America, and that the company will need a new experimental permit from the FAA to fly out of New Mexico. Anderson, citing conversations with the company, said Grasshopper activities would start sometime between October and February. 

The launch pad Grasshopper will use at Spaceport America is still being built. Construction on the 30-meter-by-30-meter pad began in April and is slated to wrap up around July, Anderson said. The new pad, like Spaceport America’s existing vertical launch pads, will be located about 7 kilometers southwest of the spaceport’s main campus. 

Spaceport America is best known as the home port of its anchor tenant, suborbital space tourism line Virgin Galactic. Virgin signed a 20-year, $50 million lease at Spaceport America in 2008 and made its first payment on that lease back in February, Anderson said. Virgin Galactic, jointly owned by founder Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s sovereign investment fund, Aabar Investments, flew the first powered test flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane April 29 and is expected to begin commercial operations sometime in 2014. 

Besides SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, UP Aerospace, Highlands Ranch, Colo., and Armadillo Aerospace, Heath, Texas, also launch suborbital rockets at Spaceport America.

Meanwhile, despite the new deal with Spaceport America, Grasshopper testing will continue at SpaceX’s McGregor test site, Ra said May 9. SpaceX’s permit for Grasshopper launches from that facility, where the company also tests rocket engines for its Falcon family of rockets, allows for an unlimited number of launches through Oct. 16.

Powered by a single SpaceX Merlin 1-D kerosene-fueled engine, Grasshopper is a test bed for technologies needed to develop a recoverable, reusable version of the first stage of SpaceX’s expendable Falcon 9 rocket — the vehicle SpaceX is depending on, along with its Dragon space capsule, to fly 12 cargo delivery missions to the international space station under a $1.6 billion contract it got from NASA in 2008. SpaceX has flown two of the 12 delivery missions so far, the latest in March. Both missions met their main objectives despite the loss of one of Falcon 9’s nine engines on the first flight, and a Dragon malfunction on the second flight that temporarily knocked out the spacecraft’s maneuvering thrusters. 

SpaceX has also booked a substantial backlog of commercial geostationary communications satellite launches aboard Falcon 9, the first of which will be satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg’s SES-8 spacecraft. That launch, SpaceX’s first to geostationary transfer orbit, is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...