New Mexico Spaceport Seeks Voter Support

New Mexico Spaceport Seeks Voter Support
Spaceport America is to blossom in New Mexico, a commercial venture to support suborbital and orbital access to space of passengers, satellites, and cargo. It is to be home base for Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceline operations.
(Image: © URS/Foster + Partners)

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico – New Mexico's bid to build Spaceport America gets voter scrutiny this week, with Otero County residents being asked to approve a one-eighth of one percent increase in sales tax to help support development of the commercial inland spaceport.

Voters in neighboring Sierra and Dona Ana counties have previously approved a Spaceport Gross Receipts Tax – with tomorrow's balloting in Otero County viewed as a step toward tagging New Mexico as a gateway to space.

Spaceport America is to be a expansive complex to be constructed inside 27 square miles of state-owned land, 45 miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico. To get up and operating, the spaceport's price tag is an initial $198 million – not to exceed $225 million as stipulated by the state's legislature.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson made a political flyby here Oct. 24 during the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. He urged all the residents of Otero County to vote go for Spaceport America.

"It'll be close," Richardson later told SPACE.com. "But you know we came from behind in Dona Ana…we came from behind in Sierra. This is not a partisan vote. It's a vote about jobs, education and the future."

Huge milestone

Meanwhile, things are already accelerating for Spaceport America, noted Steve Landeene, Executive Director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA).

NMSA and Virgin Galactic – the suborbital spaceline backed by lofty-minded British billionaire, Richard Branson – have just entered into a development agreement prior to the signing of a final lease agreement with Virgin Galactic to operate at Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic is slated to use the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo system to air-launch customers on suborbital stints. That hardware is now under construction at Scaled Composites in Mojave, California.

"It's a huge milestone," Landeene told SPACE.com, in moving to a development agreement – one that defines the process to seal the deal on a 20-year lease by year's end. "It's a collaborative effort between us, to define a cost structure so that both parties are happy. And that's what we're doing," he said.

Furthermore, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in their review process of Spaceport America's license application.

"They've submitted an application and the long pole is the environmental process. That's being worked through," advised George Nield, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, FAA. "The real goal is to make sure that the spaceport and Virgin's operations are coming to maturity about the same time…nobody has to wait for the other guy."
New partnership

The recently held Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge also proved to be a launching pad for future Spaceport America operations – beyond Virgin Galactic.

A new joint venture was announced between Rocket Racing, Inc., and Armadillo Aerospace. The partnership promises to capitalize on Armadillo's rocket expertise and build a fleet of reusable vertical take-off and landing craft to haul paying passengers to the edge of space.

Under the terms of the partnership, Armadillo Aerospace will develop the reusable launch vehicles and provide ground support and equipment. Rocket Racing Technology Development – a wholly owned subsidiary of Rocket Racing Inc. – will provide financing for, and business and operational management of the partnership.

The companies plan to fly from Spaceport America new versions of existing vehicles to space and fabricate an initial passenger vehicle prototype in 2009 and perform the first piloted flights to space in 2010. Cost per ticket would be $100,000, or less – half the price of Virgin Galactic's now stated per-seat cost.

"This partnership is a testament to New Mexico's strength in the space industry," Richardson said in announcing the partnership. "Along with Virgin Galactic ... Spaceport America is now going to be launching the leading horizontal and vertical commercial space companies."

Bubble up to space

John Carmack, chief rocketeer of Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas will lead his entrepreneurial team to build the suborbital platforms. The hardware is being fabricated to give passengers a 360-degree view during rocket-boosted flight upwards to 62 miles (100 kilometers), give patrons some 5 minutes of microgravity, and then make a descent back to Spaceport America.

An initial design of the craft features a large bubble-like nose, offering a pair of space travelers a stunning view. Originally, Armadillo was pushing for single-person vehicles, Carmack added. "So we need to squeeze a little more margin out of all of this."

Carmack told SPACE.com that the bubble dome is likely to be made from transparent, high impact Lexan plastic. "That's a preliminary concept."

"Lexan should be sufficient for this. The heat pulse is low. The effective air speed doesn't get that high, except for the brief time at reentry," Carmack explained. If Lexan doesn't work out, he added, one fallback design would be to go to high-temperature glass portholes.

"But I don't think it's going to be that big of a problem," Carmack suggested. "It's really just not that severe of an environment coming in from 100 kilometers [62 miles] ... and especially if you're not head-on into that kind of reentry. But, of course, we'll find out."

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