New Mexico's Governor, Bill Richardson, is announcing today the inaugural rocket launch in a series of space liftoffs planned for that state's Southwest Regional Spaceport.
Richardson is set to recognize the spaceport activity at New Mexico's State Capitol Building in Santa Fe.
When completed, the New Mexico spaceport--situated near Upham (roughly 45 miles north of Las Cruces and 30 miles east of Truth or Consequences)--will cover some 27 square miles.
The "ribbon cutting" flight in March of next year will carry seven experimental and commercial payloads for a variety of scholastic and business entities.
"It's a historic moment for New Mexico in that we've talked about the spaceport for 15 years," said Rick Homans, Spaceport Authority Chairman and New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary. "This means that in the next few months we'll be actually turning some dirt."
Still underway is the requisite work to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS) - needed to obtain a spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). That work has started, Homans said, and data collected during next year's rocket launch will be used as part of the FAA license application.
Homans told SPACE.com that the first rocket launch from the spaceport is now slated for March 27, 2006. "Our feeling is that as soon as there are rockets actually launching from the spaceport, more companies will be knocking at our door."
The rocket to climb from the spaceport will be a SpaceLoft XL, developed by UP Aerospace, said Eric Knight, the group's chief executive officer.
Knight said in a press statement that UP Aerospace of Unionville, Connecticut has the capability to launch up to 30 space launches per year from New Mexico's Spaceport. The company believes that its SpaceLoft rocket offers the "world's lowest cost-per-pound of any space-transportation vehicle."
Jerry Larson, President of UP Aerospace said that the SpaceLoft rocket with the company's S.T.A.R. (Space Technology & Academic Research) initiative offers colleges and universities with even the smallest budgets the ability to conduct "real science on a real space-flying rocket."
The upgraded SpaceLoft is some 20 feet (6 meters) tall. Fueled by solid propellant, the rocket will be targeted to reach 350,000 feet (106,680 meters). "The plan is to have it recovered about 25 miles down range in the spaceport area," Larson told SPACE.com. A vehicle common to the SpaceLoft--the GoFast--was flown last year by Larson and his colleagues from Black Rock, Nevada.
Fly routinely and often
Larson is excited about flying UP Aerospace rocketry to christen the New Mexico spaceport.
"Finally there's a place in the United States that is opening its arms to entrepreneurial and small groups like ours...to launch rockets that can reach space," Larson said. Use of public land in Nevada takes a lot of coordination, he said, making it very difficult to launch.
"With New Mexico organizing this...it should make this much more routine. And that's very important," Larson said. "We want to fly routinely and often. I think we'll see some miraculous things happen now at the spaceport in the years to come," he added.
UP Aerospace officials noted that their business plan focuses on three markets: Businesses that require economical testing of space-flight hardware; scientific analysis of the Earth and in-space phenomena; and research conducted by the educational sector.
According to the UP Aerospace web site, SpaceLoft vehicles are built to military specification and utilize highly reliable propulsion systems. Launch services are green-lighted by U.S. government licensing from the FAA and approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The UP Aerospace group can carry out launch operations with a certified and experienced launch crew and is able to conduct on-land payload recovery. "From contract to launch in as little as six months," states the UP Aerospace web site.
Homans said the UP Aerospace flight next year acts as a forcing agent.
"It forces us to work out the other details involved with the spaceport in terms of the state land office, which actually owns the land," Homans said. In addition, the ranchers that own property abutting the spaceport are also an active part of spaceport discussions, he said.
Liftoff site for the SpaceLoft XL has been determined, Homans said. Facilities to prep, then launch and monitor the rocket are to be installed there. This will be a minimal first phase to handle the first activity at the spaceport, he said.
"It's a lot better to have some activity than no activity," Homans said. "So this puts us into a whole new category of viability."
Turn dirt and launch rockets
Homans said that opening the spaceport for business is a big step for New Mexico.
"There's a lot of expectation. And there has also been a tremendous amount of skepticism. When you spend 15 years talking about something and producing report after report, but never actually turn dirt and launch rockets, then people naturally get skeptical," Homans noted.
Having UP Aerospace fly out of the spaceport came from a strategic planning process, stemming from Governor Richardson's backing of the annual X Prize Cup activities at the spaceport.
Momentum is picking up for the upcoming Countdown to the X Prize Cup, slated for October 6-9 in New Mexico.
Events scheduled include a public symposium on the future of spaceflight at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces on October 6th; educational and public activities at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo on October 7-8; and on October 9, the Personal Spaceflight Expo at the Las Cruces International Airport.
Full details and e-tickets are available at: www.xprize.org