The first official meeting of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority was held in Las Cruces Aug. 17 to begin establishment of the Southwest Regional Spaceport in New Mexico, which authority officials hope will serve as a major departure site for commercial space launches, including proposed passenger-carrying rockets offering suborbital and orbital treks.

“It is a big step forward,” said Rick Homans, Spaceport Authority chairman and New Mexico Economic Development Department secretary, about the meeting. Previously, a state office of space commercialization and a New Mexico space commission had done planning work on the spaceport, he said.

“Now we move into implementation,” Homans said in an interview following the kickoff meeting. An early task of the new group is to go through the environmental impact process, which will begin within the next 30 days and likely take a year to complete, he said.

Homans said he anticipates that a New Mexico spaceport license would be granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sometime in 2006 . Prior to receiving the FAA license, Homans expects to see activity at the spaceport next year, including possibly low-altitude, experimental rocket testing.

“Once we’ve got the license, then that gives us the ability to actually launch craft into space from there,” Homans added. The New Mexico spaceport itself — located near Upham, roughly 70 kilometers north of Las Cruces and 50 kilometers east of Truth or Consequences — covers some 40 square kilometers, he said.

Those working on the New Mexico spaceport have been busy over the last three months developing a comprehensive, multi-phase strategic plan .

Part of that process has been “talking to players and future players” in the blossoming commercial space arena, Homans said, “to really get a sense of where they are headed and what they need. This is uncharted terrain right now … we’re on the frontier here. We’re inventing it as we go.”

Homans said the New Mexico Spaceport Authority is keen on partnering with private companies that “want to get in on the ground floor of this industry and become financial partners with the state in building and operating the spaceport.”

Since 1996 , the FAA has licensed five spaceports in the United States, said Patricia Grace Smith, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation. “That in itself clearly shows the genuine interest in private, commercial space development,” she said .

The Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation is the only space-related line of business within the FAA.

States, communities and investors are converging to capitalize on the promise of space, Smith sai d: “These are people with a strong commitment and confidence in the future space development can bring. “

According to Michael Kelly, v ice president of the X Prize Foundation, New Mexico has made an “unshakable commitment” to becoming a leader in facilitating commercial access to space.

Kelly is responsible for all engineering, safety and operational activities associated with the annual X Prize Cup and Personal Spaceflight Expo — a partnership of the X Prize Foundation and the state of New Mexico.

The X Prize Foundation sponsored the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which was won last year by the Mojave Aerospace Ventures team led by Burt Rutan of Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites and funded by billionaire Paul Allen .

The X Prize Foundation also is assisting in the development of the New Mexico Southwestern Regional Spaceport.

“This year, we have the Countdown to the X Prize Cup, an event which carries forth the momentum established by the Ansari X Prize. Next year will see the first official X Prize Cup event. We hope to grow this to an event on a par with the Reno Air races, or greater, and in so doing attract more business to the spaceport. We hope to make it a thriving incubator for the personal spaceflight industry of tomorrow,” Kelly said.

Countdown to the X Prize Cup is slated for Oct. 6-9 in New Mexico.