SPACE GRANT CONSORTIUM
On May 2, dozens of high school and college students from around New Mexico are due to gather north of Las Cruces and east of Truth or Consequences to watch their payloads lift off aboard an UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL sounding rocket from a stretch of desert that state officials hope one day will be a bustling spaceport.
Among them is Patricia Hynes, whose organization receives roughly $750,000 a year from NASA that it must match dollar-for-dollar through state contributions and fundraising. The money is used for various research and education activities, such as the student launch initiative that event sponsors Spaceport
and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority intend to make an annual event.
, the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium is part of the
and Fellowship Program established by Congress in 1989. Modeled after the land grant and sea grant college programs established in 1862 and 1966, respectively, space grant colleges train students for aerospace careers.
As Hynes sees it, there is a bright future for today’s students and the state of
in commercial space. Bids are being solicited this spring for construction of Spaceport America, which voters in two surrounding counties have agreed to fund through a gross receipts tax. Virgin Galactic, the suborbital spaceship operator founded by British billionaire and adventurer Sir Richard Branson, recently signed a 20-year lease on terminal facilities at the spaceport.
In addition to her educational duties, Hynes organizes the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) each fall in
. Proceeds from the conference help fund New Mexico Space Grant Consortium activities.
Hynes spoke with Space News editor Warren Ferster and deputy editor Brian Berger during a recent visit to
Would you say that the mission of your organization is primarily educational or promotional?
My mission is research and education. Research universities are the economic stimulus for this country. They are the underpinning of our strategic capability, particularly in space science and engineering.
How important is Spaceport
‘s aerospace future?
It is the future. It’s one of the main reasons I do ISPCS – to grow the commercial space business in New Mexico – because right now we have no significant aerospace business of any consequence in New Mexico. We have the ranges, but they’re all federal facilities. We have a big Lockheed Martin and Boeing presence there, but they’re all black programs, not commercial.
Is there interest in Spaceport
beyond space tourism flight operators?
will become a very important strategic asset. The Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space office and the Air Force are very supportive, particularly when you look at the fast integration capabilities being developed in New Mexico. For example, we have Kirtland Air Force Base establishing Chile Works up in Albuquerque to focus on small, operationally responsive satellites. So when I talk to them, I say, “hey, you could put your stuff on a big old jet and take it out to Kwajalein and launch with [Space Exploration Technologies Corp.] or you could put it on a truck and drive it two hours.” Two hours versus Kwajalein. It’s a very simple trade. That’s why former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), back in the 1970s, worked to get the original funding for Spaceport America.
Is the spaceport equipped to handle orbital launches?
Essentially, our best orbit is launching north into polar orbit.
‘s permission to fly over its territory would be difficult, no?
We did drop a rocket there in the ’60s and they’re still upset about that. We’re well-suited for various air-launched concepts. Lockheed Martin is looking at fly-back boosters and Virgin, of course, is pursuing a Pegasus-type operation for low Earth orbit launches.
So expendable rockets dropping spent stages on their way into polar orbit is
kind of a non-starter?
‘s along the way. Can’t do it.
How is the ongoing recession affecting the timetable for creating the spaceport and bringing launch operations there?
It won’t affect the spaceport coming into fruition because those funds were already set aside and have been since New Mexico put together a package of incentives in the 1990s to land VentureStar, the single-stage reusable launcher Lockheed Martin was developing as a follow-on to the X-33 demonstrator it was building in partnership with NASA. When NASA ended the program, those concessions from the New Mexico legislature were still there, including $200 million to build the spaceport. So we just reworked the proposal, sent it to the X Prize Foundation to get the X Prize Cup and they became the anchor tenant instead of VentureStar.
voters approved a gross receipts tax to support construction of Spaceport
Has anybody run the numbers to see how the recession might affect that revenue?
Yes, and we’re down just slightly. Seventy percent of the jobs in Doa Ana County are state or federal jobs. You either work for the school district, the university, White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base – so we’re good. We are a little oasis from the downturn.
is banking somewhat on Virgin’s success. What do
officials see as the downturn’s impact?
is very positive and proceeding forward. We are not oblivious to the economic conditions.
How does Gov. Bill Richardson staying in
rather than taking a Cabinet post in
change the outlook for either the spaceport or the space grant consortium?
Gov. Richardson has a commitment to Spaceport
and to the education project. For me, selfishly, I’m glad he’s going to be there because he’ll steady that ship during this time of contraction.
Is the government doing all that it should be doing to promote commercial space?
The government needs to recognize that the universities have been and continue to be the economic stimulus for this country and they need to be supported, not cut back during the downturn. If you look at the economic stimulus package and what science and engineering got, they’re underfunded, last place, and it’s a mistake. Our government does not see that science, engineering and technology are not elitist pursuits at all; it is the economic stimulus that keeps our country strong. The research universities in particular are given very short shrift. If you think about all the money going to the banks, how much of that would trickle down to a university? They don’t get it. When the auto industry executives flew their corporate jets to
and the government made a big deal about it, they didn’t kill off executive compensation, they killed off the corporate jet business – part of the lifeblood of this economy and they put it in the dumper.
The government is also cutting back travel for conferences. If it wasn’t for my conference, Aerojet would have never found New Mexico and now they’re going to move here. I always thought conferences were big old boondoggles, until I started doing one and realizing how much commerce goes on at these meetings, if they’re set up properly.
Do you have other concerns about issues confronting the space industry today?
Yes, and that’s that old space versus new space stuff. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by drawing this distinction. It’s harmful to young people coming into the industry. The space business traditionally has been very collegial, but when we start labeling ourselves as old or new, where do you want to be? Do you want to be old? No, you want to be with the new. Well, that, then, is disrespectful on some levels to the people who brought us to the dance.