Las Cruces airport mulls aerospace growth - Albuquerque Journal

Las Cruces airport mulls aerospace growth

LAS CRUCES – With increasing activity in commercial space flight and new startups entering the industry, Las Cruces is eyeing opportunities to draw more aerospace investment to the area – including the role its municipal airport might play in the effort.

Las Cruces International Airport, built originally as a military air base during World War II and transferred to the city in 1955, is working on an updated master plan, a requirement of its certification with the Federal Aviation Administration, and a guide for city planning as the facility looks to short- and long-term needs, including economic development opportunities.

As airport administrator Andy Hume puts it, the plan “makes sure that the pieces you need for growth are either in place or, if they’re not, how we get them in place.”

A new focus for the airport’s master plan will be aerospace and what improvements might be made at the airport to make Las Cruces more attractive to the industry as commercial activity is anticipated to ramp up next year at Spaceport America 50 miles north of the city.

While the spaceport is best known for its anchor tenant, spaceflight company Virgin Galactic, other tenants and customers are also active at the remote facility outside Truth or Consequences, among them UP Aerospace, SpinLaunch and HAPSMobile/Aerovironment.

Hume tells the Las Cruces Sun-News that the most recent master plan, adopted in 2018, did not assess the proximity of the spaceport or aerospace growth, even though Virgin Galactic is a “pretty steady presence” at the airport, flying engineers between Las Cruces and its manufacturing base of operations in Mojave, California.

A consultant to the master plan update said in an interview that Las Cruces is already “on the map” for U.S. aerospace and well positioned to attract more businesses involved in manufacturing and supply chains for the growing satellite and reusable rocket industries.

James Bennett, chief regulatory officer for aerospace technology company Immortal Data, said Las Cruces established itself in the minds of space entrepreneurs in 2006, when it hosted the X Prize Cup rocketry and lunar landing expo and competition. By then, early construction had already begun on the spaceport in Sierra County.

Immortal Data, which is developing a data system payload to be launched by UP Aerospace, has maintained an office at the Las Cruces airport since 2019, when it relocated from Mojave.

The company is now serving as a subcontractor for the master plan update being prepared by the engineering and consulting firm Dubois and King.

“We think there’s an opportunity,” Bennett said.

There is, however, some catching up to do for public capital investment. Private sector money moves much faster, and developments are accelerating.

Virgin Galactic flew its first two crewed flights to the edge of space over New Mexico this year, and rival Blue Origin has also flown passengers to space twice from its facility near Van Horn, Texas. SpaceX is flying human crews to the International Space Station for the space agency NASA and may test a new prototype for orbital flights as soon as November.

Interest in satellite and rocket technology is also high. Bennett remarked, “I think I see a new startup announced every week nowadays,” adding that an estimated 120 companies worldwide are developing or building launch vehicles. While most of these startups can be expected to disappear, he said the industry is here to stay.

That means commercial space firms are actively seeking optimal locations to root themselves, and Bennett said Las Cruces has a valuable foothold.

“It’s got the economics, because you have a low cost of operation,” he said. “It’s got a good university locally and three or four good universities with aerospace talent within a couple of hours. You have an incubator (at New Mexico State University) which is very commercial-space-savvy. These are all good ingredients.”

The question for this master plan update, he said, is whether Las Cruces’ airport could become the new Mojave airport, providing a similarly convenient access point for moving new technologies to rapid turnaround tests or commercial operations at the spaceport.

The airport is adjacent to an industrial park and completed crucial pavement upgrades a year ago. There are three runways that can accommodate arrivals and departures in six directions.

One of them, however, is in need of maintenance, and Hume said the city hopes to extend the length of the other two to 8,600 feet and 10,500 feet, respectively.

That would accommodate heavier aircraft, including commercial passenger jet launches from the airport.

Hume explained that, at present, jets loaded with passengers can land at the airport, but can only take off empty under FAA regulations.

Both men said the planning update will present city officials with an assessment of potential investments conducive to the industry’s needs, financial risks and strategic priorities for attracting private sector investment. Bennett said the planning document will present policymakers with a phased plan for immediate needs, plus 5- and 10-year plans to position itself for regional aerospace activity.

“It’s going to be looked at by some hard-minded people asking the hard questions and we want to make sure that we have a well-studied set of options,” Bennett said.

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