New Mexico captured another big bite of the emerging commercial space industry on Tuesday with the announcement that Space Exploration Technologies Corp. will test a reusable rocket at Spaceport America.
SpaceX has gained global fame by flying two cargo spaceships to the International Space Station since last year under contract with NASA. Now, the company is building a reusable, vertically launched rocket for human passengers that will lift off to space and then land on the ground intact without burning up on re-entry.
The company signed a three-year lease to conduct flight testing on that rocket, dubbed the “Grasshopper Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing” vehicle, at the spaceport in southern New Mexico.
And, unlike other space companies that periodically launch vertical rockets from the spaceport, SpaceX will set up shop there, making it the second tenant to sign a lease at the spaceport after Virgin Galactic, said the New Mexico Spaceport Authority’s executive director, Christine Anderson.
“It’s tremendous news for New Mexico,” Anderson told the Journal. “They’re building a space vehicle that will take off and land just like an airplane. To have technology like that be developed right here in New Mexico is just fantastic.”
SpaceX spokeswoman Christina Ra said company activities in New Mexico will be limited to testing the Grasshopper, which, until now, has undergone low-altitude flight tests at a facility in McGregor, Texas.
“Spaceport America offers the physical and regulatory landscape needed to complete the next phase of Grasshopper testing, including the ability to coordinate tests to high altitudes,” Ra said in an email to the Journal.
SpaceX, founded in 2002, is headed by Elon Musk, who co-founded the Internet payment system PayPal and the electric car company Tesla Motors.
SpaceX became the first commercial entity to return a spacecraft from low-earth orbit in December 2010. It later signed a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly 12 cargo supply missions to the space station, the first of which happened in March 2012, and the second in April of this year.
The company employs more than 3,000 people in California, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Florida.
Anderson said SpaceX operations will have some economic impact in New Mexico, but it’s unclear how many local jobs may be created or revenue generated. The company will rent a mobile mission control facility at the spaceport’s vertical launchpad, and it will pay $25,000 per launch.
“It’s research and development, so they won’t want to spend a lot of money on a fancy building,” Anderson said. “Income from the lease will depend on the frequency of their launches.”
That’s quite different from the spaceport’s anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, which expects to start flying paying passengers to space next year. Virgin, which has a large, dedicated facility at the spaceport, is expected to generate many local jobs and economic activity through its own operations, through subcontracts with local suppliers and through an anticipated leap in tourism in southern New Mexico.
SpaceX’s biggest impact in New Mexico may be the prestige it brings, potentially strengthening the spaceport’s ability to attract more companies and better compete with a growing number of commercial space facilities in other states.
That’s been a challenge until recently because New Mexico offered limited liability protection for space-related companies. That may have contributed to two firms, XCOR Aerospace and RocketCrafters Inc., establishing operations in other states last year, rather than in New Mexico.
However, the Legislature passed a bill this year, signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, to broaden protection from litigation, reinforcing the spaceport’s ability to attract business.
“We’ve done a lot of work to level the playing field so we can compete in the space industry,” the governor said in a statement about SpaceX coming to New Mexico. “This is just the first step in broadening the base out at the spaceport and securing even more tenants.”
Anderson said SpaceX activities will generate more interest in the spaceport.
“It’s good news to have such a credible company of SpaceX’s caliber coming here,” she said. “Hopefully, more companies will see that and want to do business here as well.”