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From here, the stars

Eve taxis on the runway of Spaceport America, near Upham. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The New Mexico Spaceport is preparing to go viral this year as Virgin Galactic gears up for liftoff in southern New Mexico.

Sir Richard Branson is widely expected to board the first commercial passenger rocket to shoot into suborbit sometime in 2020 in an event that could capture global attention as the turning point that marks the dawn of commercial space travel. Rocket flights with paying passengers will soon follow, potentially kicking up an unprecedented groundswell of spectator tourism and worldwide media attention that the spaceport and local industry leaders want to be ready for.

To prepare, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority is seeking $57 million in capital outlay this year for infrastructure projects it considers critical, beginning with $25 million for a welcoming center and visitor access control installations.

In addition, it’s seeking $20 million for space vehicle and payload processing centers for companies operating at the spaceport’s horizontal and vertical launch areas to do on-site assembly of rockets and the microgravity experiments placed in them. It also wants $10 million for the first phase of a new taxiway in the horizontal launch area to run parallel to the current 12,000-foot runway, and it wants $2 million for a modern IT control center for all communications infrastructure at the spaceport.

Officials and media workers gather at Spaceport America, near Upham. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Separately, the Governor’s Office is requesting a $3.6 million annual appropriation from the general fund for spaceport operations, up from $1 million this fiscal year, in part to ramp up spaceport staff in FY2021.

Those are tall orders for this year’s legislative session, especially because the state has already invested $220 million to build the spaceport, plus $25 million in capital outlay in the past two years for other infrastructure projects.

But spaceport leaders and supporters say the new projects are critical as New Mexico moves to the forefront of the world’s emerging commercial space industry.

Branson’s coming spaceflight and the passenger launches soon to follow offer a historic opportunity for New Mexico to rocket into global stardom as one of the key leaders in the new space age, said Dale Dekker of architecture firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini.

Dekker co-founded Ambassadors for Spaceport America, a group that now unites about 400 local professionals, businesspeople and enthusiasts to promote the spaceport and New Mexico’s budding commercial space industry.

VMS Eve is parked on the runway of the Spaceport America, near Upham.

VMS Eve is parked on the runway of the Spaceport America, near Upham. “We believe that investments in the spaceport will pay off this year with a global event that New Mexico has really never experienced before,” Dekker told the Journal. “When Richard Branson boards the first rocket, it will attract national and global attention, offering an opportunity for New Mexico to show off all its space-related assets. We believe it will be seen by billions, earning the state media attention equivalent to the Super Bowl or the Olympics.”

Spaceport America must be prepared to host hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists, as well as new firms that may want to locate at the facility, both to provide goods and services to Virgin Galactic and other companies operating at the spaceport, and to conduct their own space-related activities there, said Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks.

The welcoming center and visitor access control are particularly critical.

“After Branson flies, there will be Virgin Galactic flights every other week, or every third week, and people will come out to see it in big crowds,” Hicks said. “We need a visitor welcoming center to accommodate and control crowds of spectators – a place where they can look off in the distance to watch flights take off.”

The $20 million welcoming center would include site security headquarters, educational exhibits, viewing and resting areas, tour arrangements, conference rooms, visitor traffic control, food preparation and an auditorium, Hicks said.

Another $5 million would pay for visitor access control, with a secure alternative entrance to the spaceport for all commercial and professional vehicles.

Even with funding, welcoming facilities won’t be ready in time for the first rocket flights expected this year, so the spaceport is working with Virgin Galactic on temporary accommodations for visitors, including everything from circus tents and portable toilets to sound systems, tables and chairs.

Vehicle and payload processing facilities are also considered a high priority to allow Virgin Galactic and other current and future companies operating in the vertical launch area to manage microgravity experiments. Alongside Virgin’s passenger rockets, suborbital payload flights, and eventually orbital satellite launches, are a key part of the spaceport’s activities.

Virgin Galactic Vice President Julia Hunter and Flight Director Bill Kuhlemeier discuss test flights. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

A half-dozen companies are already working on those things at the vertical launch area, including regular suborbital flights by UP Aerospace for NASA and commercial customers. One company, SpinLaunch, is building a $7 million, 10,000-square-foot test facility there for a new centrifuge technology that will rapidly spin satellite-carrying rockets around on the ground until reaching hypersonic speeds to literally fling them into space.

As Virgin Galactic lifts off, the Spaceport expects a wave of interest from more space-related companies exploring operations there. The spaceport has signed nondisclosure agreements with nearly 50 companies that are considering operations in New Mexico, Hicks said.

And while Virgin Galactic draws attention to the state, an explosion in commercial space activities nationally and internationally is also generating industry-wide hype as the world gears up to launch and manage tens of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbits for global communications in a hyperconnected world. Many companies are coming to New Mexico, largely because much of the U.S. Department of Defense’s effort to modernize its space-related infrastructure is based at Kirtland Air Force Base.

One new organization, New Space NM, is now working to unite all the state’s space-related entities and individuals in a collaborative association to support and build the industry here.

“There’s a lot going on that’s providing huge opportunities,” New Space NM founder and CEO Casey DeRaad told the Albuquerque Economic Forum in December. “…There’s a lot of new innovation and exploration happening here, including space travel from our own spaceport. We think New Mexico can be the leader in this new space age.”

Another statewide initiative, the Space Valley Summit, launched this month to unite New Mexico’s three research universities with federal and state entities to share expertise and collaborate on space-related projects.

The spaceport itself is actively recruiting industry. It’s identified about 140 satellite-related companies and will target many for recruitment.

“We’re assessing which ones to focus on,” Hicks said. “We won’t go after everyone. We’ll focus on those that seem like the best fit for New Mexico.”

The spaceport’s capital outlay requests could face pushback in this year’s legislative session, but Hicks hopes to at least get some critical funding this year, and possibly more next year.

With a new age of human spaceflight approaching liftoff, New Mexico needs to capitalize on emerging opportunities, Hicks said. Apart from Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin plans into launch its first paying passengers to space this year on its New Shepard rocket, and both SpaceX and Boeing are gearing up for their first NASA-sponsored human flights to the International Space Station.

“They’re all scheduled to attempt liftoff in 2020, and it’s driving huge excitement in the space industry,” Hicks said. “The Spaceport and Virgin Galactic can leverage all that momentum to build activities in our state.”

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