Executive Director, New Mexico Spaceport Authority
Construction on a road that will connect Engle, N.M., to what state officials are billing as the world’s first “purpose-built” commercial spaceport began in September and when completed in February will mark the completion of the first major piece of infrastructure for Spaceport America, a sprawling complex to be constructed inside 27 square miles of state-owned land in southern New Mexico.
While an initial major focus is suborbital space tourism, backers of the project have an expansive vision that includes eventual orbital launches, not just for tourists but for a variety of commercial uses. The spaceport also is being billed as a logical location for the kind of rapid response military space activity that will be the backbone of what the Pentagon calls operationally responsive space.
Given the site’s 1,370-meter elevation, low population density, good weather and the restricted airspace it shares with neighboring White Sands Missile Range, the backers of Spaceport America want it quite literally to become the home address for commercial access to space. The budget target for getting Spaceport America up and operating is $198 million, and while that figure might go up it is not to exceed $225 million – a price tag stipulated by the state’s legislature.
Virgin Galactic, the space tourism venture bankrolled by billionaire visionary Richard Branson, is expected to be a leading anchor tenant of Spaceport America. The development agreement with Virgin Galactic is nearing its final form and should be signed within the next few weeks.
Pulling all of these activities together is the job of Steven Landeene, who has been executive director for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) since January. With some 20 years experience at Honeywell Aerospace, Landeene has been responsible for a diverse suite of projects ranging from jet engine development to strategic planning and operation. Landeene also has worked at Dubai Aerospace Enterprise/Landmark Aviation in Phoenix, where he led the strategy and planning to develop the new brand of Landmark Aviation for the Carlyle Group.
Under his leadership Spaceport America is moving along quickly, with the NMSA currently projecting that licensed vertical launches can start in the first quarter of 2009 and that the terminal and hangar facility needed for horizontal launches of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle should be completed by 2010.
spoke recently with Space News correspondent Leonard David.
What is your highest priority and what are your greatest challenges?
There has been no shortage of challenges to take on. Certainly, the Environmental Impact Study and the Record of Decision from the Federal Aviation Administration to obtain our spaceport launch license have been important milestones that need to be done before the end of the year.
What is the status of the Spaceport District being formed in New Mexico?
Dona Ana and Sierra counties have already approved a one-quarter of one percent gross receipts tax. In November, Otero County voters are to vote on a one-eighth of one percent gross receipts tax to help fund Spaceport America. The key success is the community really starting to get behind the initiative and understanding what we’re really trying to do. It’s not about rich people flying into space. There’s a much bigger picture here around environmental aspects, modes of transportation … and bringing a new industry to New Mexico.
What has been the overall reaction to the concept of Spaceport America?
There are many folks who have contacted us who want to develop agreements. We’ve signed four Memorandum of Understandings this year … and that’s without a lot of bandwidth to go out and do the customer outreach that I’m anxious to do. Our long-term client has been UP Aerospace … as well as Lockheed Martin and their research and development effort, along with Microgravity Enterprises right here in New Mexico and Payload Specialties of Missouri.
As soon as we get our launch license, we’re going to see much broader interest. Again, I’m very anxious to go out and talk to more customers about the benefits of New Mexico and Spaceport America. I’ve got a very soft spot for education … as that’s the next generation that’s going to carry us forward in space.
What about other users?
In the master plan, I certainly hope to be doing large orbital launches from Spaceport America as the technology matures.
Sometimes we get caught up in the way we think about a commercial spaceport and we forget the fact that it does not mean only commercial types of applications or launches. Nothing is more prevalent than operationally responsive space. There’s great potential in getting light satellites into space. And that may indeed come out of a place like Spaceport America.
In your mind, what is a spaceport?
There are a number of elements that tie together. It’s a research facility and then an operational facility all in one element. Then there’s the element of tourism to show people what you’re doing. The design teams are getting more and more confident as each month goes by … to get to that Version 1 infrastructure. Over the long run it’s going to be customer driven so that we keep flexibility and tailor a solution that’s going to meet missions, but try and maintain a very low-cost approach for people to come and fly out of Spaceport America. I want to see a lot of different uses. We want to build into the design a flexibility that is pretty open and valuable for all.
The next several months are going to very challenging – to bed everything down and break ground shortly into 2009, to be ready for a vertical launch capability in 2009 and be ready on a horizontal level in 2010.
Can Spaceport America serve as a template for other spaceports that might follow?
If that’s the case, there are surely lessons learned. We’re not going to be perfect. There’s going to be a lot of issues that we’re going to learn. First of all, you don’t know what vehicles are going to come down the pike.
We’ve already toured a lot of folks out at the site from around the globe. There’s definitely a buzz about the commercial space reality, be it from Dubai, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Australia, Singapore there’s a lot of spaceport talk. That’s reflective of everybody believing that this technology is now here and that we’re going to be taking tourists to suborbital space in the very near future.
Any specific lessons learned to date?
It’s very important to get a defined area and plan very quickly. As best you can, stick to that plan so that your teams avoid cost and schedule creep. We’ve had to make decisions as to what we need for a Version 1 spaceport and put that into place.
One thing the team did early on prior to my arrival is creating a committee of all the stakeholder agencies and having their inputs early. Creative mitigation usually comes at the end of the process, but in my opinion that’s already occurred. The earlier you can engage everyone to identify issues, the smoother your environmental impact statement process will go.
There is growing talk regarding point-to-point interconnectivity between spaceports and various craft. What’s your feeling about this prospect?
Even just a few months ago people were trying to keep this idea low profile, wanting to prove out vehicles traveling up and down to the same point first. But it seems to be coming out more and more into everybody’s thought processes.
Point-to-point travel, there’s surely going to be more challenges, no question. But I do believe you’re going to see that mode of transportation. How many years will it take to actually get to that level? I don’t know. However, I don’t hear any naysayers.