Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
When Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Enterprise crashed in the Mojave Desert in 2014, the shock waves blasted through Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.
The crash killed one pilot and injured another, thrusting Richard Branson’s commercial space venture into a prolonged recovery period that has pushed the promise of suborbital passenger flights in New Mexico back by nearly four years. With Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant, the Spaceport’s future is fundamentally linked to that company’s success, and the Mojave disaster cast a broad shadow on whether the state’s $220 million investment in the facility would ever pay off.
But New Mexico’s space industry leaders hunkered down, plodding forward with facility development and designing new plans to rope in more business. Those efforts are beginning to bear fruit, boosted by exploding growth in the commercial space industry.
New Mexico’s Spaceport is now a leading contender for business, and with Virgin Galactic hurtling again at Mach speeds to suborbit, things are looking up.
“We’re not just a Virgin Galactic spaceport, we’re a general spaceport,” Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks said. “We’re sending a more holistic message because the space industry is so much more. The future is very bright from our perspective.”
That message is beginning to resonate among public entities and private operators now that the Spaceport is fully operational, Hicks said.
Previous administrators were more focused on just getting the spaceport built, a monumental task given its location in the middle of empty desert near Upham, about 50 miles north of Las Cruces. But all the basic infrastructure is now in place, including a 12,000-foot runway for horizontal launches by Virgin Galactic and possibly others, a three-story space terminal and hangar for the anchor tenant, a separate vertical launch area, and on-site emergency services and fuel storage facilities.
The first fully paved southern road to the Spaceport was completed this month, stretching 24 miles from the Upham exit on Interstate 25. The $14 million project will shave off about 45 minutes of travel time for visitors from Las Cruces, who until now had to continue north to Truth or Consequences and then 20 miles back south to the Spaceport.
The administration is now building and planning additional infrastructure with $6 million in fresh funding approved by the Legislature this year. That includes $5 million to upgrade fuel storage facilities to handle a lot more anticipated Spaceport activity, $500,000 for upgrades to the horizontal launch area, and $500,000 for planning and design of a new payload processing and integration facility.
The Legislature also approved $10 million to build a hangar in the horizontal area to house a prospective tenant now in negotiations with the Spaceport. That money will be delivered once the contract is signed, Hicks said.
Administrators are aggressively recruiting both suborbital and orbital space operators who serve all three sectors of the space industry – defense-related institutions, civilian entities like NASA and commercial customers.
“Most launch providers are working across the spectrum, and we’re set up to support all three sectors,” Hicks said.
A half-dozen companies are already working on suborbital and orbital launches, projects and ground-testing activities at the Spaceport. They include the Boeing Co., Pipeline2Space, ARCA Space Corp., EXOS Aerospace, Cesaroni Aerospace and UP Aerospace.
The last two built their own co-owned and co-operated solid-fuel rocket motor manufacturing and test facility last year at the vertical launch site. It supplies motors on site for UP Aerospace’s suborbital rocket and for a new orbital vehicle UP is building in partnership with NASA. Cesaroni is also manufacturing more than 100 military grade solid rocket motors at the facility under two contracts, including one with Sandia National Laboratories.
UP Aerospace, meanwhile, has three launches scheduled for this fall.
“We’re getting ready now for two back-to-back launches on Sept. 12 and 17, both of them for NASA,” said UP Aerospace President and CEO Jerry Larson.
Spaceport administrators believe a lot more business could soon be headed their way.
“When the Wright brothers started flying early last century, it took 30 or 40 years for commercial flights to take off,” Hicks said. “The commercial space industry is already well past that point, with technologies now in place for it to go big time in the next five to 10 years. We’re in a perfect place to capitalize on it as the industry moves forward.”