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N.M. Begins Yearlong Countdown To X Prize Cup Contest

By Matt Mygatt/
Associated Press
      The space exploration limelight is again shining on New Mexico — a major player in America's guided missile program since the father of modern rocketry conducted tests in the Roswell desert more than 70 years ago.
    This week, New Mexico began its yearlong countdown to the X Prize Cup contest, an event that organizers hope will one day draw international attention.
    Highlighting the events this week are flight tests of a prototype rocket-powered airplane scheduled Sunday at Las Cruces International Airport.
    "There's a fascination in the United States and the world with space travel, and people love to watch rockets take off and learn about the process,'' said state Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans.
    The event is expected to expand next year, when the competition will feature races by rocket-propelled airplanes, said Michael Kelly, vice president of operations for the X Prize Cup.
    John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the idea behind it is to stimulate organizations and individuals to develop ways to put people into space outside of government funding.
    The cup, and its cash prizes, is a spinoff from the $10 million Ansari X Prize won Oct. 4, 2004, by the privately owned SpaceShipOne, which blasted into space twice in five days.
    George M. House, curator of the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, said he thinks the X Prize Cup is "the best thing to come to our state in decades.''
    "Not only will it benefit us economically, but it will open up the aspect of space exploration to the common person, the common layman, as opposed to governmental entities,'' he said.
    The cup is the latest in a long history of rocketry and space exploration in New Mexico.
    Robert H. Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, conducted his research near Roswell between 1930 and 1932 and 1934 and 1941, House said.
    In 1945, the U.S. War Department activated White Sands Proving Ground — now White Sands Missile Range — in southern New Mexico for guided missile tests.
    German scientists who developed the V-2 rocket during World War II came to the range after the war to continue their work. Between 1946 and 1951, more than 60 V-2 rockets were launched form White Sands, House said.
    White Sands also was the site for Apollo lunar and service module tests, and space shuttle pilots have practiced landing approaches there.
    The first chimpanzees in space were trained at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.
    And the shuttle Columbia landed at White Sands on March 30, 1982, because of bad weather at the shuttle's primary landing site.
    Beyond next year, details of X Prize Cup competitions have yet to be hammered out. Awards are envisioned for different categories of competition in future X Prize Cups, Homans said.
    "One would be for altitude, one for turnaround time, one for size of payload — things like that, all geared towards increasing access to space and affordability of going into space,'' he said.
    X Prize Cup officials hope infrastructure will be in place at the planned Southwest Regional Spaceport in southern New Mexico so that the competition can be held there in 2007.
    Ground is to be broken later this year for the spaceport — currently 27 square miles of uninhabited, hardscrabble state-owned desert about 45 miles northeast of Las Cruces. The first launch from the spaceport is scheduled next March 27. UP Aerospace Inc., of Unionville, Conn., is to fire off a 21-foot, 750-pound rocket carrying experimental and commercial payloads in a suborbital flight.
    Homans estimated $100,000 will be spent for a concrete launch pad and temporary buildings for fuel storage, rocket assembly and a shelter.
    "As we move the X Prize cup out there, that's going to require additional launch pads and the construction of a vertical assembly facility for tall rockets that will have a big crane inside of it ... and may cost $1 to $2 million to put the building up,'' he said.
    Long runways at the spaceport will be the most pricey, but they are needed for "air launch customers,'' Homans said.
    "These are sizable planes that need long and wide reinforced runways. We're talking about all than and the hangers — it'll be up to a couple hundred million dollars,'' he said.
    Public money would be used to pay for the basic infrastructure at the spaceport, Homans said.
    "Specific facilities would be built and leased for customers,'' he said.
    "As these customers use this spaceport, there would be user fees much like you see at an airport or maritime port and the industry would grow to such a point that these user fees would not only help in the operation but the expansion of the spaceport in the future,'' Homans said.
    The cup and the spaceport will lead to jobs in manufacturing, research and development, maintenance and tourism, Homans said.
    "If we increase our access to space, it's going to require reusable launch vehicles and new technology, and those are the companies we see coming to New Mexico for the X Prize Cup,'' he said.