WASHINGTON — Spaceport America, the commercial launch site in New Mexico most closely linked to Virgin Galactic, is seeking to diversify its user base beyond launch companies, an effort that has already resulted in one new customer.
Spaceport America announced May 19 a memorandum of agreement with X2nSat, a Petaluma, California, provider of satellite communications services, to establish a ground station on spaceport property. The parties expect to sign a long-term lease agreement for the ground station this summer.
X2nSat Chief Executive Garrett Hill said in a May 26 interview that the first phase of the facility will include several large satellite antennas, gateway electronics, and office space. He added the company has a twenty-year plan for expanding the ground station, increasing its size by as much as tenfold.
“We’ll be investing a few million dollars,” Hill said of that first phase of the ground station. The initial antennas could be in place there as soon as January 2016, but he acknowledged that schedule is “a little bit optimistic.”
The company, which currently operates teleports at its California headquarters and in Atlanta, sought a third site because of the limited real estate at those locations for expansion. The company considered locations around the country but selected Spaceport America because it offered the best combination of environment and infrastructure. “What we got there was the best of everything,” Hill said.
Spaceport America announced the X2nSat agreement less than a week after it released a five-year business plan. That plan calls for diversifying the spaceport’s customer base beyond launch companies to those involved in satellite ground stations, unmanned aerial systems, and even non-aerospace sectors like marketing and tourism.
“Just like commercial airports, revenue diversification is critical to successful operation,” the business plan states. The goal of the spaceport is to become “a multi-tenant facility with many different customers paying lease and user fees, as well as a regional tourism destination.”
In a May 19 interview, Spaceport America Chief Executive Christine Anderson said the spaceport hired a marketing director earlier this year to help find new customers and was looking at markets as diverse as concerts, corporate retreats, and high-end weddings. The spaceport’s goal is to generate at least 30 percent of its revenue from non-aerospace sources by 2020.
Spaceport America, though, is not ignoring its two major tenants, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. The state of New Mexico constructed the spaceport, including its 3,650-meter-long main runway and terminal building, primarily to serve Virgin Galactic. That company, though, is still recovering from an October 2014 accident that destroyed its first SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, and a second SpaceShipTwo won’t begin test flights until later this year.
In the meantime, Anderson said spaceport employees, such as security and emergency response teams, are working with Virgin Galactic on series of exercises to prepare for eventual flights there. “It will be a huge, precedent-setting event,” she said of the eventual first SpaceShipTwo flight there, “and we want to make sure all the protective services are ready.”
SpaceX signed an agreement with Spaceport America in 2013 to conduct vertical takeoff and landing tests there as part of the company’s efforts to develop a reusable version of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. While SpaceX has built out its test site at the spaceport, it has yet to perform any flights there.
SpaceX previously planned to use Spaceport America for high-altitude test flights of its F9R test vehicle, but that vehicle crashed during an August 2014 test at the company’s Texas test site. The company is instead considering using Spaceport America for test flights of a Falcon 9 stage it will attempt to land on a ship during an upcoming launch. “We’re hoping they’ll show up in the fall,” Anderson said.
Anderson said Spaceport America had been in discussions with X2nSat for a couple months before the release of the business plan. While the spaceport is reaching out to various potential customers, that wasn’t the case for X2nSat. “They found us,” she said.
Hill confirmed that. “Honestly, we found them on the Internet,” he said, stumbling across the spaceport while researching another topic. They contacted the spaceport through its website, starting discussions that led to the agreement.
“We’re glad to be one of the first companies going there,” he added of the spaceport. “We think this is going to be a great asset for the state.”