But that NASA-sponsored feat generated barely a blip in public attention.
Another SpaceLoft launch with NASA-sponsored microgravity experiments took place in November, again with little fanfare.
In good part, that’s because all eyes are riveted on Virgin Galactic, which is expected to begin suborbital commercial flights from the spaceport this year for paying passengers. But it may also reflect the natural evolution to a “new normal” public mindset regarding spaceflight activity at the spaceport’s vertical launch area, where UP has operated since 2006.
Since then, it has launched the SpaceLoft 13 times from the spaceport, while also conducting test flights on vehicles there for other companies, including Lockheed Martin. It even built a rocket motor factory on-site in 2017, which now provides all engines for its own launches, plus motors for other companies and entities, such as the military and Sandia National Laboratories.
UP is headquartered in Colorado, where it manages most of its basic engineering and design work, but its seven-member workforce has spent more than half of each year since 2017 directly at the spaceport, said UP President and CEO Jerry Larson.
And UP is not alone. A half-dozen other companies are also located at the vertical launch area, where they’re developing a variety of new suborbital and orbital launch vehicles and capabilities. That includes Cesaroni Aerospace, a Florida company that partnered with UP to build the on-site rocket factory, or “space propulsion center.”
A new vertical launch tenant, SpinLaunch, also broke ground there last May on a $7 million, 10,000-square-foot center to test and develop a novel technology that could literally fling satellites into space using a ground-based centrifuge system that spins around to reach hypersonic speeds before releasing the rockets for kinetically propelled flight.
The company says it now has 20 employees working at the spaceport, and it could begin initial flight testing this year.
“We are progressing with the buildout of our first mass accelerator, with a target of first test flight in 2020 to verify the system,” company founder and CEO Jonathan Yaney told the Journal in an email. “…The commercial space market is expected to grow to a trillion dollar industry within this next decade, and our partnership with Spaceport America will expedite our ability to service that fast-emerging market.”
The combined activity of companies in the vertical launch area and Virgin Galactic’s rapidly approaching commercial operations at the horizontal launch area is turning the spaceport into a major employment hub in the New Mexico desert, said Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks. The employee count is projected to reach 287 in the current fiscal year that ends in June, up from 163 in FY 2019, and then grow to 351 in FY 2021.
That includes a steady ramp up by Virgin Galactic, which opened its Gateway to Space operations center at the spaceport last summer, growing its New Mexico workforce from 80 in FY 2019 to a projected 150 in the current year. It also includes 32 spaceport employees and about 40 contract personnel, Hicks said.
“It’s a good news story,” Hicks said. “We’re creating jobs given all the growth in Virgin Galactic activities and other operations at the spaceport.”
UP expects to conduct more NASA-sponsored flights this year under contract with the space agency’s Flight Opportunities Program, which NASA launched to pay commercial operators to send new technologies into suborbit for testing and development after the space shuttle stopped flying. UP has received three NASA contracts since 2013, flying seven missions to date on its SpaceLoft rocket and carrying more than 80 microgravity experiments to space.
Among them are two new technologies that were later sent to the International Space Station, such as a new device built by Washington-based engineering firm Control Dynamics Inc. that can isolate experiments from vibrations and other interference on rocket flights, improving the microgravity environment.
UP expects to reach another milestone in February, when it conducts static ground tests on four different solid-propellant rocket motors it’s built at the spaceport to propel a new, four-stage, satellite-carrying rocket called the Spyder into low earth orbit, Larson said. Up has been developing Spyder for about five years in cooperation with NASA to offer a reusable, low-cost alternative to rapidly launch satellites.
“It will be a huge milestone for us when we static test all four motors,” Larson said. “We’ll lock up the technology and work out all the bugs.”
The orbital Spyder system won’t fly from the spaceport, because with four stages, some of the boosters could fall back to earth over potentially inhabited areas, Larson said. Rather, it will fly from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island, where depleted stages can fall into the ocean.
But UP is also developing a suborbital version of the Spyder that will fly from the spaceport.
“It’s a much bigger diameter vehicle than the SpaceLoft,” Larson said. “It can carry more payloads and go higher and faster.”
UP is benefiting from exponential growth in the commercial space industry, with satellite operators and others seeking private firms like UP to launch into space. And with Virgin Galactic gearing up for commercial operations this year, the spaceport expects an unprecedented wave of national and international attention that can lift all boats, Larson said.
“Companies like Space X and Virgin Galactic are helping to inspire the commercial space industry,” Larson said. “I’ve been in this business 35 years and I’ve never seen anything like what’s been happening in just the last three years.”