New Mexico Aims To Build a Better Spaceport

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The “build it and they will come” adage seems to be the real rocket fuel propelling New Mexico’s bid to construct a sprawling spaceport near Upham in the southern part of the state.

Last year, British entrepreneur Richard Branson decided to park the world headquarters of his Virgin Galactic spaceline in New Mexico and to use the proposed Southwest Regional Spaceport as the company’s primary operating base.

The state’s quest to build a spaceport also has attracted the interest of rocket builders Starchaser Industries, launch specialists UP Aerospace, the annual X Prize Cup and the Rocket Racing League.

New Mexico spaceport advocates envision the project as one of “national significance” — capable of supporting NASA and other U.S. government agencies in addition to commercial customers from around the world.

The proposed spaceport site is approximately 70 square kilometers of open, generally level, range land that is 72 kilometers north of Las Cruces and 48 kilometers east of Truth or Consequences. The site was picked for its low population density, uncongested airspace and high elevation. The estimated cost is $225 million with completion anticipated by 2010.

Even before the bulk of that money is spent, launches from the area are expected soon. UP Aerospace of Unionville, Conn., is readying its SpaceLoft XL rocket for a New Mexico launch in late March, which is expected to set the stage for a series of launches planned for the Southwest Regional Spaceport.

The UP Aerospace launch facility involves use of a large concrete pad holding a hydraulically controlled, custom-built rocket rail, said Eric Knight, the group’s chief executive officer.

The temporary structures — to support the UP Aerospace launch, the first in late March — 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.

“Our partnership with New Mexico goes well beyond launching rockets,” Knight said . The UP Aerospace agreement with New Mexico includes providing data about its rocket flights to assist the spaceport in acquiring its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) license.

The upcoming flight in March is sold out. That is, commercial and educational sectors represent 11 customer payloads set to fly onboard the suborbital rocket, which will reach an altitude of about 113 kilometers.

“We’re booking payloads and experiments on another two flights this year … and multiple flights in 2007. We’re on track to ramp up to 30 launches per year by 2008,” Knight said.

As 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.

The spaceport was one of the issues mentioned by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in his annual State of the State address to the state legislature Jan. 17. “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.” He said the spaceport would have a long-term economic impact of $752 million and nearly 5,800 jobs.

“All of our effort right now is focused on securing the funding to build the spaceport,” said New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans, who is 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 said in an interview.

This year the New Mexico legislature will consider the governor’s proposal to kick-start spaceport construction with a $135 million appropriation.

Given 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, a selected firm would be under contract, he said, and it would develop the construction bid to be issued first quarter of 2007.

“That 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.”

“We 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.

For example, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital passenger operations will make use of a super-huge version of the White Knight carrier aircraft built by Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif.

At 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.

In five to 10 years — air launches of spaceships bound for orbit would require 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.

Patti Grace Smith, the FAA’s associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, said time will tell how distinctive New Mexico’s spaceport proves to be.

“In 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 said.