When Sir Richard Branson flew into suborbit from Spaceport America on July 11, New Mexico’s reputation as a global hot spot for the emerging commercial space industry climbed right along with him.
Branson’s flight cast an unprecedented international spotlight on New Mexico as the birth place for commercial space travel. And that, followed by billionaire Jeff Bezos’ July 20 launch into space from West Texas, is firing up global anticipation for a new 21st Century era of space tourism.
Virgin Galactic plans two more flights this year. The next one, possibly later this summer, will include the company’s former CEO, George Whitesides.
After that, the company will launch its first truly commercial flight in the fall to carry a four-member passenger crew from the Italian Air Force to space for experiments in microgravity and future astronaut training. And then, following a four-month hiatus for spaceship maintenance and upgrades, Virgin Galactic will finally open the gates to regular tourist flights in early 2022, ferrying paying passengers on joy rides into suborbit from southern New Mexico.
But while most public attention is riveted on Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America, a lot more space development is also gaining momentum in New Mexico, particularly in Albuquerque, where government entities and business organizations are partnering to build out state-of-the-art facilities and programs that could turn the city into a bustling center of production for new space technologies.
That includes plans by one large investor to create a massive complex to design and manufacture satellites near the Albuquerque International Sunport, plus
another business-led effort to develop a separate, mixed-use complex on Kirtland Air Force Base that will house many space-related companies starting next year.
Thunderbird Kirtland Development LLC – which is spearheading the planned MaxQ project on the base – expects to break ground this month on the first two buildings at the site for two different companies. That includes the space-focused national engineering firm BlueHalo, which plans to invest $60 million in a 200,000-square-foot facility to design and manufacture new space technology.
BlueHalo announced its investment on July 20 in a press conference with local, state and federal officials, who hailed the progress underway in building New Mexico’s commercial space industry.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the state is reaching the tipping point in industry development, elevating New Mexico into a leadership position.
“For the first time for as long as I can remember, we’re beating out other states,” Lujan Grisham told the Journal. “We have the right talent and vision in place to do it. I believe we’re already beyond the tipping point.”
Albuquerque and New Mexico are “rising up” and the country is “taking notice,” added Mayor Tim Keller.
“We’re committed to being the home for space technology,” Keller said at the BlueHalo event. “We are winning this race, and Albuquerque will be known for it for decades to come.”
Many factors are propelling local industry momentum. Chief among them are U.S. Department of Defense efforts to modernize military capabilities in space, plus the DOD’s reliance on private sector ingenuity and agility to design and develop the new innovative technologies it needs.
Albuquerque is front and center in those efforts, because many of the military entities directly involved in space defense are located at Kirtland. That includes the Space & Missiles Center, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate.
That’s led to a steady flow of contracts for local companies, and for national firms with facilities here. Just since last fall, BlueHalo has won six different AFRL contracts worth a total of $136 million to develop things like modern space communications and sensing systems to improve autonomous spacecraft controls and enhance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
The DOD needs a broad range of products and services, generating opportunities for companies with many different areas of specialization. That includes manufacturing systems and components, plus operational management services for spacecraft, satellites, launch operations, ground control, and software development. It also includes firms that can harvest reams of newly-generated data from space for information processing and analysis.
To help tap into those opportunities, Kirtland entities are working in partnership with local government and industry organizations to build connections between businesses and DOD agencies. NewSpace New Mexico, an industry association that launched in Albuquerque in 2018, has spearheaded a lot of those activities, largely in cooperation with the AFRL.
NewSpace will receive $11 million in federal funding over the next five years to accelerate those efforts, allowing it to build two new innovation hubs where companies can connect and network with the AFRL and other government agencies to launch and grow business operations here.
The association inaugurated a new, 8,700-square-foot facility on July 8 near the Sunport called the “Unite and Ignite Space” innovation hub that will provide resources, co-working areas, meeting spaces and networking events to facilitate connections and collaboration. It opened the center in partnership with the AFRL.
It also plans to open another 15,000-square-foot space at the forthcoming MaxQ development site where similar services will be offered, including secure management for companies to work on classified projects there, said NewSpace founder and CEO Casey Anglada DeRaad.
And the AFRL itself opened a separate innovation hub for space-related companies in Nob Hill this past spring. That center, called Q Station, will help facilitate direct connections between companies and DOD entities to work on new technologies.
“These new facilities and programs can provide a lot of resources to connect space suppliers with buyers,” DeRaad told the Journal. “It allows us to really bring everyone together in a cohesive, collaborative ecosystem.”
‘Getting really excited’
Like others, DeRaad said the momentum now underway represents an inflection, or tipping point.
“We’ve been in cheerleader mode for the last couple of years, but now people are getting really excited,” DeRaad said. “We have a real opportunity to become a leader in the space industry.”
New Mexico has long been home to space innovation and development, said AFRL Technology Outreach Lead Matt Fetrow.
“But we’re now seeing an acceleration of that innovation with new programs and companies based in New Mexico,” Fetrow told the Journal. “That brings national recognition for New Mexico as a key place for the industry – and that’s new.”
The MaxQ development site and the satellite-manufacturing complex that the Washington, D.C.-based Theia Group wants to build next to the Sunport are particularly significant achievements, Fetrow added.
MaxQ could potentially concentrate dozens of high-tech companies together on about 70 acres of space on the north side of Kirtland. The complex will be built in phases, eventually encompassing more than 2 million square feet of office, laboratory, retail and manufacturing facilities that stretch from Carlisle to Truman on the south side of Gibson.
The satellite-manufacturing complex, meanwhile, would be located on an 114.5-acre parcel of land just west of MaxQ. That project, dubbed the Orion Center, would include a 4.1 million square-foot factory plus other facilities. It would employ 1,000 people to start, potentially expanding to 2,500 later, according to the Theia Group.
“That would be a game changer,” Fetrow said.
The Orion investors have already leased a 72,000-square-foot building in the Sandia Science and Technology Park. And in June, the Theia Group paid the city $1 million to lease the land targeted for the Orion Center, said Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, who represents the area.
“They already made their first rent payment, and they’re now doing a road show to raise more capital for the project,” Davis told the Journal.
Given all the developments underway, New Mexico is gaining national “validation” for its efforts to build a bustling commercial space industry here, Davis added.
“It feels like where the film industry was 10 years ago,” Davis said. “We planted the original seeds with incentives and resources to build that industry 20 years ago, but it took a decade to come into its own, and then another decade to become a national leader. The space industry is following in that same path.”