The coronavirus slowed some activities at Spaceport America this spring, but commercial operations are gaining traction again.
A new tenant, HAPSMobile Inc., launched operations this month at the southern New Mexico installation after investing $8 million to build a runway and hangar to test and develop a novel, solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle that, by 2023, could offer internet connection to remote regions across the globe.
Virgin Galactic also completed two more “pilot proficiency” flights this month for its VMS mothership, which will carry the company’s VSS Unity spaceship part way to suborbit when commercial flights for paying passengers begin.
And the company announced Monday a new agreement to help NASA build a pipeline of private commercial missions to the International Space Station. It will develop a new “flight readiness program” to train ISS-bound astronauts, with some instruction done at Spaceport America.
Financial terms of the “Space Act Agreement” with NASA were not disclosed, but Virgin Galactic said it would eventually arrange for passengers to travel to the space station. The company said it would recruit candidates interested in purchasing private missions to the space station, and provide end-to-end resources and astronaut training.
Spaceport spokeswoman Alice Carruth said the coronavirus has interrupted activities since April, causing the postponement of planned launches by tenants at the facility’s vertical launch site, and forcing cancellation this month of the annual Spaceport America Cup, an advanced rocketry and engineering competition.
“The coronavirus slowed us down considerably,” Carruth told the Journal. “It interrupted progress for our tenants, and many launches had to be rescheduled. But the coronavirus restrictions are lifting, and companies are now starting to reschedule launches that were scrapped in the spring.”
More than a half dozen companies conduct operations at the vertical launch site, which lies southwest of the horizontal launch area where Virgin Galactic is based. That includes two new companies – TMD Defense and Space, and White Sands Research and Developers LLC – which announced in January that it would initiate launch activities this year at the spaceport.
Most of those companies operate elsewhere, but use spaceport facilities to conduct flights.
Until now, the spaceport had only three full-time tenants – Virgin Galactic, UP Aerospace and SpinLaunch. UP regularly shoots microgravity payloads into suborbit on a reusable rocket, and SpinLaunch is building a 10,000-square-foot center to test and develop new satellite launch technology.
HAPSMobile is the fourth full-time tenant to join the spaceport, setting up operations in the horizontal launch area just north of Virgin Galactic, Carruth said.
Japanese telecommunications firm SoftBank Inc. created HAPSMobile in 2018 in partnership with aircraft development company AeroVironment. The partners have built a new, solar-powered vehicle, the HAWK30, that could fly for months at a time in the stratosphere at 65,000 feet up to provide internet service in remote regions around the world, similar to a cell tower in the sky.
Creating a high-altitude platform station, or HAPS network, is an emerging concept that Google’s parent firm, Alphabet Inc., has also pursued over the past decade through its subsidiary, Loon LLC, which uses stratospheric balloons to provide internet service in remote areas. Last year, Loon and HAPSMobile joined forces to build the telecommunications technology that will fly on the HAWK30.
HAPSMobile, which signed a lease agreement in March, received $500,000 in Local Economic Development Act funding from the state. It’s since invested $8 million in a new runway, hangar and office complex that opened at the spaceport this month, creating 65 local construction jobs and generating about $500,000 in gross receipts taxes.
“They already moved the (HAWK30) vehicle to the spaceport,” Carruth said. “They have a 29-member staff there now that’s assembling the aircraft to begin testing in the next few weeks.”
Spaceport Executive Director Dan Hicks said the spaceport’s location next to White Sands Missile Range, which provides access to 6,000 miles of restricted airspace, helped entice HAPSMobile to New Mexico.
“The project is an exciting concept that can positively impact communities and relief efforts throughout the world with internet connectivity,” Hicks said in a statement. “We are tremendously proud to have this program, along with their high-tech staff, as our newest collaborator at the spaceport.”
Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, continues flight testing in New Mexico for the VSS Unity and the VMS Eve, the mothership that will carry the six-passenger Unity to about 45,000 feet, at which point the spaceship detaches from the carrier plane and fires its motors to shoot into space. The company conducted a non-powered glide test for the Unity on May 1, whereby the spaceship broke away from Eve and glided back down to the spaceport without firing its engines. And, on June 13, Eve flew twice more without the Unity to continue preparing pilots for commercial launch, the company said in a tweet last week.
Virgin Galactic now has nearly 180 people working in New Mexico. And with coronavirus restrictions easing, the spaceport is bustling again, with some 200 employees working daily onsite, Carruth said.
“I can’t discuss Virgin Galactic’s operations, but they continue to test, although at a slightly slower pace, like all companies affected by the coronavirus,” Carruth said. “I believe they’re on track to launch commercial activities by early next year, at the latest, if not by the end of this year.”