An artist's concept of Spaceport America, a suborbital spaceport under construction in New Mexico.
Credit: Spaceport America Conceptual Images URS/Foster + Partners
New Mexico's Spaceport America is no longer the stuff of fancy graphics.
The scene is now one of bulldozers and other heavy equipment. Loads of asphalt and concrete are being spread. The initial phase of building the rambling complex within remote desert scenery is quickening.
One could easily call it "hard hat heaven" for those that have pushed for Spaceport America's development over many years.
Spaceport America, billed as the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport, is taking shape some 30 miles (48 km) east of Truth or Consequences and 45 miles (72 km) north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
A critical centerpiece of Spaceport America is putting in place a runway to space. Measuring 10,000 feet long by 200 feet wide that stretch of tarmac is designed to handle horizontal launch space and air operations at the spaceport.
Virgin Galactic, the suborbital spaceline operator, is the anchor tenant for Spaceport America, also making use of a Terminal Hangar Facility projected to be complete by early 2011.
"The runway is estimated to be complete by June and at the latest August 2010," Steve Landeene, Executive Director for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA), told SPACE.com. At that moment Spaceport America will be open for people to come and use the runway for their activities."
The runway is large, Landeene said, but not necessarily that different than major military or heavy commercial runways. "The longer term view is to widen the airfield to 300 feet by 15,000 feet which would make it one of the most capable airfields in the world," he noted.
As for runways that can handle spaceships, a good comparison is NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It is 15,000 feet long and 300 feet wide to give returning shuttles enough room to touch down and coast to a stop.
Then there's Runway 12/30 ? 15,000 feet long by 200 feet wide ? at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that can be used for emergency shuttle landings. At Edwards Air Force Base in California, it sports a huge 39,098 feet by 899 feet wide lakebed runway that has served as a landing site for the space shuttle.
By contrast, larger international airports that accommodate the biggest jets offer a landing strip over 18,000 feet long by some 260 feet wide.
Spaceport America's Landeene said that a recent design request is to potentially add centerline lighting to assist pilots in landing.
One of the unique elements of Spaceport America's runway versus others is that it sits next to White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) and has the option of flying in full restricted airspace or the National Airspace, Landeene observed. "With Kirtland Air Force Base to the North and Holloman Air Force Base to the east ? just east of WSMR ? a very unique set of operating theater capabilities is being established to perform many types of testing and operations."
Past is prelude
The caution and warning light is on when it comes to runways and returning space ships. That's the outlook of Stuart Witt, General Manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California.
That inland spaceport has chalked up considerable know-how during 2002-2004 as the WhiteKnightOne carrier plane and SpaceShipOne underwent extensive shakeout flights. Those craft were developed by Mojave-based Scaled Composites.
The Mojave locale is also home for start-ups XCOR Aerospace and Masten Space Systems. Both entrepreneurial firms have performed rocket-powered flights in 2004-2009 and they are keen on providing suborbital flight for clientele.
And it was from the Mojave Air and Space Port that the first privately-funded human spaceflights soared skyward.
A step-by-step test program led to bagging the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 by the piloted suborbital SpaceShipOne making back to back vaults into space within a two-week period.
Given that the past is prelude, Scaled Composites is now working with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to build, test and commercially fly ticket-holding tourists to the edge of space via the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system.
Witt observes that firms developing "on the cheap" or "the commercial way" without unlimited funds to perform all "must haves"..."should haves"...and "nice to haves" tend to focus only on the "must haves."
Adequate runways to handle a returning glider from space packed with paying passengers isn't a "must have" until you need a cross wind runway, Witt said. That need did happen, he said, on one of 17 SpaceShipOne flights at Mojave, and was practiced by XCOR Aerospace on two rocket-powered craft developments when the vehicle returned as a glider.
History speaks for itself, Witt said, flagging what NASA learned during development of several piloted space glide vehicles, including the X-15 and the space shuttle.
Witt asks: "How many shuttle [landing] aborts were the cause of out-of-limit cross winds at Edwards Air Force Base, White Sands or in Florida? How many lakebed landings were the result of the runway being in the 'wrong direction' for the returning craft? Or another good question is how many people and craft has the lakebed option saved in the past 60 years?"
The pig is committed
Suborbital craft are committed to a landing from the time they separate from the mother ship ? in the case of Virgin Galactic ? or from the time they depart the runway from a tarmac launch in the case of XCOR's suborbital machine.
"Much like bacon and eggs for breakfast, the chicken is involved with the meal but the pig is committed," Witt said. Regardless of whether they achieve sub-orbit, they are committed to a landing in about 35 minutes at best or 15 minutes in a worst-case scenario of no rocket firing and having to land heavy, he explained.
At Mojave Air and Space Port, Witt said that there are four runways in their licensed area, with one of them offering pilots a length of 12,500 feet by 200 feet wide - one of the longest non-military runways in the region.
"We have found it essential to have multiple paths for takeoff abort or wind shifts on return. Justification and lessons learned have been shared with the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) "with passion as a requirement for commercial spaceport licensing," Witt concluded.
Spaceport America's Landeene responded that Mojave Air and Space Port and Spaceport America are different entities.
Mojave is an active airport within the town of Mojave, Landeene said, while Spaceport America is a dedicated purpose-built facility adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range.
"Virgin Galactic will have exclusive use of the airfield at Spaceport America which guarantees a clear runway," Landeene added. It is challenging to shut down an active airfield on a regular basis, he said, noting that they experienced this issue at the neighboring Las Cruces airport when performing the X Prize/NASA/Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.
"We also have the clear weather and the option to fly in restricted airspace or national airspace. The availability of clear airspace, low population density, clear weather, and high elevation all make Spaceport America a unique place to perform space launch activities," Landeene emphasized.
Moreover, Landeene continued, New Mexico has several airports within a 30-mile radius of Spaceport America, such as in neighboring Hatch, Truth or Consequences, and the White Sands Missile Range - which provide additional landing options under certain conditions.
The prevailing winds at Spaceport America allow for the primary runway to be relied on for operations. "We do have plans to extend the runway to 15,000 feet in the future as well as a cross-wind runway as customer needs dictate," Landeene said.
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Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.