New Mexico Space and Science, Part I: Spaceport America

The WhiteKnightTwo in its hangar at Spaceport America. Image courtesy Virgin Galactic
The WhiteKnightTwo in its hangar at Spaceport America. Image courtesy Virgin Galactic

Three and a half hours south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, nestled between the San Andres and Black Range mountains, lies what may very well be the future home of spaceflight. Deep in the desert southwest, Spaceport America is situated to become the premier space tourism and commercial launch facility in the country.

Launching from inland provides a number of benefits over coastal spaceports. First, there’s the added fuel economy of “the first mile is free”; at 5,000 ft. elevation, ships are already nearly a mile closer to space, and the air they’re flying through is much thinner than that at sea level. Launching at sea level is also unpredictable. New Mexico boasts 300 (or 310, 340, or 368.2, depending on which PR person is talking) days of sunshine a year. Regardless of what the real number is, there’s no denying that having a mission scrubbed due to storms, fishing boats, or Uncle Joe in his Cessna is much less likely in the desert surrounded by thousands of square miles of the White Sands missile range, the largest protected airspace in the U.S. There’s just one problem with launching out of the landlocked New Mexico; nobody wants rockets landing on their heads. Kennedy and other coastal facilities allow boosters to fall harmlessly (for certain definitions of “harmless”; I’m not sure the marine life would agree) into the ocean. However, there are two companies looking to make this a non-issue.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk to revolutionize space technology and enable people to live on other planets. With a number of successful flights into orbit, a $1.6B contract with NASA, and the first successful docking of a private spacecraft with the International Space Station, SpaceX is situated as the leading private space company in the world. Their current Falcon 9 rocket is the first of its kind in its ability to land safely back on Earth and not simply be jettisoned off into the ocean. Once this technology has been perfected, SpaceX is sure to look into turning their currently temporary launch facilities at Spaceport America into a more permanent home for the Falcon 9R.

Virgin Galactic is also addressing the problem of disposable booster rockets, but in an entirely different manner. Rather than making them reusable and attempting to land them back on Earth, they’re eliminating the first stage altogether by launching from mid-air. Their WhiteKnightTwo mothership, the same craft that carries the SpaceShipTwo spaceship, will soon be carrying other payloads as well, using Virgin’s currently under design LauncherOne vehicle. The advantage of launching from mid-air is that it eliminates the need for heavy, expensive, and environmentally damaging first stage booster rockets. Virgin has signed a 20-year lease with Spaceport America for their hangar facilities and already has contracts with a number of companies for carrying small payloads such as CubeSats into orbit at the relatively low price of $10M, a price possible both by eliminating expensive boosters as well as offsetting the cost of the WhiteKnightTwo with over 600 reservations on their passenger spaceplane SpaceShipTwo.

Earlier this month, I was given a tour of the facilities by Spaceport America CEO Christine Anderson. Listening to her and the others involved, it is clear they are passionate about their mission and are chomping at the bit to begin commercial launches. Recently, their focus has been on sharing their facility with the public, including hosting rocket launches for local college students. Starting this month, they will begin the Spaceport America Experience, an interactive tour of “the second space age” that kicks off at the Spaceport America Visitor Center in Truth or Consequences. Here, the Nav Knowledge & Space Medicine exhibit will allow visitors to see how they would fare living, playing and working in space as they determine how many Gs they can master while controlling a flight wheel. Space Medicine will let visitors learn how these forces affect the human body both on Earth and in space. Young space adventurers can let their imaginations run wild with the KidSpaceport exhibit as they create and live out space missions of tomorrow. Visitors will also be able to reserve or purchase tour tickets for the Spaceport America site tour, which we were given a sneak preview of during our visit.

Our tour began at the ungodly hour of 04:50 when the only people coherent are paperboys, ER doctors, and, thankfully, Starbucks baristas. After a quadruple venti wake-up call, we followed the Rio Grande south out of Albuquerque, with only a single Duran Duran reference, until we reached Elephant Butte (cue the dad jokes).

...goin' by at the rate of four to the seventh power
…goin’ by at the rate of four to the seventh power

Travel tip: if you want to torture your photographer friends, drive them through some of the most beautiful landscape in the country at sunrise doing 75mph.

In Elephant Butte (heh) we were joined by our tour guide, Mike, from Follow the Sun, the official Spaceport America tour operator. We were also afforded the opportunity to take a break, grab a donut, and peruse the gift shop, where after careful consideration I chose not to purchase a $50 flight suit – a decision I’m still regretting. As we drove towards the site, we watched a documentary of the surrounding area, punctuated by interesting commentary from Mike who managed to be entertaining and informative without being cheesy — not an easy balance for a tour guide. As we listened to tales of natives, conquerors, and explorers, it became clear that this part of the tour was less about space and more about New Mexico history. As fascinating as the story may have been, a brief history of space flight from the ’50s to today and into the future would have been a much more appropriate topic, considering our destination. However, given the Spaceport is funded in large part by a half-million dollar operating budget provided by the state, the focus of the material wasn’t exactly surprising.

Upon arrival at Spaceport America, we were greeted by Ms. Anderson who hopped on the bus and escorted us to the first stop, the Spaceport Operations Center (SOC). The SOC houses the firefighting and EMT vehicles, personnel work areas, and mission control. This is not your granddaddy’s mission control. Large touchscreen displays and a completely integrated system allow two operators to control and monitor the entire spaceport. From mission control, the controllers can look out directly over the next stop on our tour, the 12,000 ft. long and 200 ft. wide spaceway (runway).

SpaceportRunwayPanoramic

Standing on the spaceway, I was struck by the seclusion of the spaceport. An 18,000 acre site surrounded by 3,200 sq. miles of missile test range doesn’t really take on meaning until you’re standing in the middle of it on a 2 mile long strip of concrete.

After taking my fill of photos and doing my best Ben Affleck hero strut, we once again loaded up in the bus and drove to the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space. This iconic hangar is home to Virgin Galactic operations and a single life-size replica of SpaceShipTwo, which will later be joined by a fleet of five spaceships and two carrier vehicles. How much later, though, is still to be determined. “You obviously know we had an accident in October, so we’re just about finishing rebuilding the SpaceShipTwo, and our carrier aircraft is also located in Mojave,” explains Carolyn Wincer, Head of Travel and Tourism Development for Virgin Galactic. “We have a huge production and test facility out there building and testing both of those vehicles, then they will fly out here and begin their New Mexico test flights. Then the customers, well, first Richard, and then the customers, will start flying.” When asked when she envisions test flights to be complete, Ms. Wincer is cautiously optimistic. “It’s really hard to say at this stage because the accident obviously changed everything, but I’m hoping it will be within the next year. It depends on how the test flight program goes, so I’m not really willing to commit to a specific date. Safety obviously comes first.”

Once testing is complete, how much longer will it be until Sir Richard’s vision becomes a reality and we’re all jaunting into space for an afternoon tour of the stars? Unless you have an extra $250,000 lying around, I wouldn’t hold my breath. “I think Richard Branson’s vision of that is that it would be like commercial aviation,” explains Ms. Wincer. “In order to pay for commercial aviation in the beginning, the airfares were really really high, but as economies of scale came into play, they were able to bring the price down. But I think the long-term goal, where I’m retired and sitting here saying, ‘Go to space for 99 cents plus taxes,’ that would be great, but I think it’s going to take almost as long as it took commercial aviation to come down. So if I were wanting to go, I wouldn’t wait, thinking it’s going to turn into Ryanair or EasyJet any time soon because it’s probably going to be a little while longer.”

It is this question of timing that is fueling doubts among some regarding the future of Spaceport America. Both SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have had difficulties and delays bringing their technology to fruition, and in February 2015, legislation was being considered by the New Mexico state government to sell Spaceport America in an attempt to recoup its initial $250M “if you build it, they will come” investment, indicating a growing concern regarding the feasibility of a commercial spaceport. However, the legislation received very little support from lawmakers, and the facility’s $500,000 operating cost was included in the annual budget with no resistance. Also, SpaceX recently had a nearly successful landing of their Falcon 9R (tipping over at the last minute), suggesting that the days of regular commercial launches at Spaceport America may be closer than ever.

Personally, I can’t wait. My bags are packed, and I’m ready to go…

Image by Randy Slavey

Randy Slavey lives near Denver, Colorado with his wife and two boys. When he's not writing code, you can usually find him behind a camera or on a trail in the mountains. Or both.