Challenges Ahead for Spaceport America

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico -- Work is underway to design and construct the first "purpose-built" spaceport to handle passenger and payload launches to the edge of space and into Earth orbit.

New Mexico's Spaceport America is seen as one gateway in a community of gateways built not only in the United States but globally. Suborbital craft that jump point-to-point between spaceports could be a blossoming enterprise to support vacation travelers, as well as a host of other businesses.

But before such visionary operations start, there are challenges to deal with before the planet is dotted with spaceports. Appropriate regulations will be required to govern the development of these facilities for one. Much work is ahead in operating and maintaining vehicles that will fly from these gateways to space.

Spaceport advocates met at the 2nd International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight, held here this week prior to the Wirefly X Prize Cup competitions slated for October 20-21 at the Las Cruces International Airport.

Regularly scheduled flights

A progress report on Spaceport America was given by Rick Homans, Cabinet Secretary, New Mexico Economic Development Department and Chairman of Spaceport America.

Homans said that the plan is to break ground at the spaceport in late 2007. The site is 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences and 45 miles north of Las Cruces. Spaceport America is expected to cost a total of some $225 million to construct.

Followed by several years of building, Spaceport America would be up and running to handle British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's suborbital spaceliner operations flying under the Virgin Galactic flag.

"By 2010 we expect to be launching Virgin Galactic on regularly scheduled flights to space from New Mexico at one or two times a week," he said, later ramping up to several times a day.

Homans said that Spaceport America will handle other tenants too. Cargo and passenger flights to the International Space Station will depart from the facility, "and soon thereafter to the Moon," he added.

Democratization of space travel

A blending of talents will be needed to satisfy the interests of many stakeholders, said John O'Connor, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, DMJM Aviation - the engineering and architectural firm now designing Spaceport America.

O'Connor said that 22 individual categories of spaceport facilities have already been defined. These include a passenger terminal complex, airfield, ground facilities, hangars, emergency response buildings; a public viewing site, as well as mission and launch control, air traffic control facilities and facilities for training.

Work is underway to best characterize the needs of both horizontal and vertical take off and landing vehicles, O'Connor noted. Furthermore, the entire Spaceport America initiative, he said, is taking into account the construction of an environmentally-sensitive space hub.

O'Connor said that some parts of Spaceport America may be underground, as well as make use of wind, solar energy. Also to be put in place is a conservative strategy for use of precious water resources, he said.

"It's a complex undertaking," O'Connor observed. "What we're talking about with the spaceport is the democratization of space travel," he concluded.

Forecast: world's busiest spaceport

The worlds first purpose-built spaceport is a business-oriented spaceport, said Lonnie Sumpter, Executive Director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

Work toward a spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration's space transportation office is on track, Sumpter said, expected to be in hand approximately at this time next year.

"As soon as we have the license, we'll start construction of the spaceport," Sumpter said, with the goal of completing the facility roughly in 2010.

Spaceport America will be a phased construction project. During its build-up, limited launch operations will be undertaken.

On-line in 2010, Spaceport America "will be well on its way, we think, to becoming the busiest space launch facility in the world," Sumpter explained.

Unknown unknowns

Stu Witt, Director of the inland spaceport at Mojave, California - the locale of the pioneering flights of the piloted suborbital SpaceShipOne and the construction of the customer-carrying SpaceShipTwo - saluted New Mexico's ability to make the spaceport a state initiative.

In looking forward to the evolution of spaceports, Witt cautioned that he sees "a lot of unknown unknowns."

Witt advised spaceport planners in New Mexico to be wary of encroachment to now remote stretches of land - from houses to convenience stores and other sprawl.

"Encroachments kill airports," Witt warned.

Spaceports will be the scene of research, flight test, and certification of people-carrying spaceships, Witt said, hopefully leading to a commercial phase. But mishaps are sure to occur, he said.

"We'll also have to go through a 'prove it' phase," Witt continued, with a minimum of 30 to 40 successful flights, he felt, to meet test points that are repeatable and sustainable.

"There are some huge unknown unknowns out in front of us that we must prove as a collective industry as we go forward. We must build responsibly," Witt said. "Hopefully, if we're successful, we will dot the landscape with spaceports," he concluded.