Leadership NM alumni get peek at state's future in space - Albuquerque Journal

Leadership NM alumni get peek at state’s future in space

Leadership New Mexico alumni and guests pose in front of the Spaceport America hangar in Truth or Consequences in February. (Courtesy of Leadership New Mexico)

Despite living less than 100 miles from Spaceport America as the crow flies, Alamogordo resident Bob Pattillo had never seen the distinctive, copper-colored hangar facility that marks the nation’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.

But after an all-day visit in February that featured a tour of Virgin Galactic’s facility, highlighted by the recent arrival of the spaceship Unity, and presentations from several heavy-hitters within New Mexico’s burgeoning space industry, Pattillo said he came away with a newfound respect for the work being done 100 miles to the west.

“I had no idea how many things they were doing here,” Pattillo said.

The tour was part of Leadership New Mexico’s alumni program, aimed at continuing to educate business leaders across the state even after they’ve graduated from the organization’s core program.

Julianna Halvorson, right, Core Class of 2018 and Lanie Smith, left, Core Class of 2020, try out the G-shock simulator in the 4K Gallery at Spaceport America in February. (Courtesy of Leadership New Mexico)

In keeping with the goals of the program, Pattillo and other members of the approximately 40 Leadership New Mexico alumni said they left with a better understanding of Spaceport America’s estimated $950 million impact on New Mexico’s economy.

“The idea that we have a facility like this in southern New Mexico is pretty impressive,” said Rob Nelson, alumni program chair for Leadership New Mexico.

Patty Komko, president of Leadership New Mexico, said 2020 marks the 25th year for the nonprofit, which aims to facilitate and identify community leaders all over the state and give them the tools to understand the challenges and opportunities New Mexico faces.

Komko said the alumni program, one of four programs the organization offers, is entering its 20th year of operation, with around 1,800 graduates from 87 New Mexico communities.

Nelson said other trips during this session include a tour of Electric Playhouse’s new flagship location in southeast Albuquerque, as well as a trip to the ABQ BioPark to take a look at the recently constructed Penguin Chill exhibit.

Komko said the program works to identify places New Mexico residents don’t always have access to, and Spaceport America has been a frequent destination since the facility broke ground in 2009.

Chris Lopez, director of site operations for Spaceport America, tells a Leadership New Mexico alumni group about the on-site fire department from inside the special-made fire engine at the spaceport’s Station 405. (Courtesy Leadership New Mexico)

“We want to present cutting-edge topics and issues, in the hope that not only will they learn at the event itself, but they learn from each other,” Komko said.

The tour was designed not only to provide insight not only about Virgin Galactic, which is planning to conduct its first commercial launch from the spaceport later this year, but also about New Mexico’s wider space industry, which boasts dozens of companies all across the state.

Bill Gutman, vice president of aerospace operations at Spaceport America, told the tour group that the Land of Enchantment has a long history with air and space, dating back to Robert Goddard’s research on rockets in the 1930s. However, Gutman said the industry has made significant progress in New Mexico over the last decade.

To date, Gutman said the site has seen more than 300 vertical rocket launches, ranging from student competitions to paying customers.

“All of us here can be proud of the fact that we’re helping to put Americans back to the space station on American rockets, rather than Russian rockets,” Gutman said.

Chris Lopez, director of site operations for Spaceport America, said the spaceport has the potential to be a significant revenue generator for New Mexico as well. Lopez said Virgin Galactic now employs 150 people in New Mexico, with an average salary of around $50,000. Overall, Spaceport America is projected to contribute $956 million in direct, indirect and induced spending between 2016 and 2024.

“We have a rare opportunity in an emerging sector, where we can take more than our fair share of customers,” Lopez said.

The tour began at Spaceport America’s main terminal hangar facility, which is now Virgin Galactic’s hub for commercial spaceflight operations. Jeremy Brown, lead designer for Virgin Galactic, discussed the company’s additions to the hangar, which converted a near-empty building into a futuristic gateway to space.

Brown said the company’s main gathering area, known as the Gaia Lounge, drew visual cues from the surrounding landscape, using earth tones and tiering to match the stark desert outside.

The highlight for many in attendance was seeing Unity, which became the first spacecraft at Spaceport America, after arriving just a week prior. Several “oohs” and “ahhs” were audible as the tour group entered the hangar and the spaceship came into view.

“I was thrilled to see the spacecraft, and to get a chance to understand their goals in terms of flight,” Nelson said after the tour.

Pete Nickolenko, who handles mission operations and special projects for Virgin Galactic, described the experience as the culmination of years of work.

“I’ve been waiting anxiously for this day that just arrived,” Nickolenko said.

The tour also had an opportunity to watch a sped-up simulation of a commercial spaceflight from New Mexico, which offered a peek at the edge of space and the curve of the earth without the estimated $250,000 cost of a ticket on the spaceship itself.

The visit also included presentations from Spaceport officials and New Space New Mexico, an organization attempting to help New Mexico’s space industry coalesce. It wrapped up with a tour of the facility’s unique fire suppression equipment.

A key theme throughout the tour was the importance of collaboration between all parts of the state. Lopez urged the business leaders in attendance to look at New Mexico’s space industry as a statewide issue, rather than one that only applies to certain regions or political affiliations.

“It’s not a partisan issue, it’s a business issue,” Lopez said.

Komko added that this approach also ties into Leadership New Mexico’s goal of helping business leaders all over the state connect and find ways to collaborate.

“It is so much easier to do business with people that you know,” Komko said. “It makes our state much smaller.”

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