America's 1st Commercial Spaceport Blooms in the Desert

Sky High Groundbreaking: New Mexico's Spaceport America
An artist's concept of Spaceport America, a suborbital spaceport under construction in New Mexico. (Image credit: Spaceport America Conceptual Images URS/Foster + Partners)

New Mexico's Spaceport America is no longer the stuff offancy graphics.

The scene is now one of bulldozers and other heavyequipment. Loads of asphalt and concrete are being spread. The initial phase ofbuilding the rambling complex within remote desert scenery is quickening.

One could easily call it "hard hat heaven" forthose that have pushed for SpaceportAmerica's development over many years.

Spaceport America, billed as the world's first purpose-builtcommercial spaceport, is taking shape some 30 miles (48 km) east of Truth orConsequences and 45 miles (72 km) north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

A critical centerpiece of Spaceport America is putting inplace a runway to space. Measuring 10,000 feet long by 200 feet wide thatstretch of tarmac is designed to handle horizontal launch space and airoperations at the spaceport.

VirginGalactic, the suborbital spaceline operator, is the anchor tenant forSpaceport America, also making use of a Terminal Hangar Facility projected tobe complete by early 2011.

Unique elements

"The runway is estimated to be complete by June and atthe latest August 2010," Steve Landeene, Executive Director for the NewMexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA), told At that moment SpaceportAmerica will be open for people to come and use the runway for theiractivities."

The runway is large, Landeene said, but not necessarily thatdifferent than major military or heavy commercial runways. "The longerterm view is to widen the airfield to 300 feet by 15,000 feet which would makeit one of the most capable airfields in the world," he noted.

As for runways that can handlespaceships, a good comparison is NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility at theKennedy Space Center in Florida. It is 15,000 feet long and 300 feet wide togive returning shuttles enough room to touch down and coast to a stop.

Then there's Runway 12/30 ? 15,000 feet long by 200 feetwide ? at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that can be used foremergency shuttle landings. At Edwards Air Force Base in California, it sportsa huge 39,098 feet by 899 feet wide lakebed runway that has served as a landingsite for the space shuttle.

By contrast, larger international airports that accommodatethe biggest jets offer a landing strip over 18,000 feet long by some 260 feetwide.

Spaceport America's Landeene said that a recent designrequest is to potentially add centerline lighting to assist pilots in landing.

One of the unique elements of Spaceport America's runwayversus others is that it sits next to White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) and hasthe option of flying in full restricted airspace or the National Airspace,Landeene observed. "With Kirtland Air Force Base to the North and HollomanAir Force Base to the east ? just east of WSMR ? a very unique set of operatingtheater capabilities is being established to perform many types of testing andoperations."

Past is prelude

The caution and warning light is on when it comes to runwaysand returning space ships. That's the outlook of Stuart Witt, General Managerof the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California.

That inlandspaceport has chalked up considerable know-how during 2002-2004 as theWhiteKnightOne carrier plane and SpaceShipOne underwent extensive shakeoutflights. Those craft were developed by Mojave-based Scaled Composites.

The Mojave locale is also home for start-ups XCOR Aerospaceand Masten Space Systems. Both entrepreneurial firms have performedrocket-powered flights in 2004-2009 and they are keen on providing suborbitalflight for clientele.

And it was from the Mojave Air and Space Port that the firstprivately-funded human spaceflights soared skyward.

A step-by-step test program led to bagging the $10 millionAnsari X Prize in 2004 by the piloted suborbital SpaceShipOne making back toback vaults into space within a two-week period.

Given that the past is prelude, Scaled Composites is nowworking with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to build, test andcommercially fly ticket-holding tourists to the edge of space via theWhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo launch system.

Cross-wind worries

Witt observes that firms developing "on the cheap"or "the commercial way" without unlimited funds to perform all"must haves"..."should haves"...and "nice tohaves" tend to focus only on the "must haves."

Adequate runways to handle a returning glider from spacepacked with paying passengers isn't a "must have" until you need across wind runway, Witt said. That need did happen, he said, on one of 17SpaceShipOne flights at Mojave, and was practiced by XCOR Aerospace on tworocket-powered craft developments when the vehicle returned as a glider.

History speaks for itself, Witt said, flagging what NASAlearned during development of several piloted space glide vehicles, includingthe X-15 and the space shuttle.

Witt asks: "How many shuttle [landing] aborts were thecause of out-of-limit cross winds at Edwards Air Force Base, White Sands or inFlorida? 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 manypeople and craft has the lakebed option saved in the past 60 years?"

The pig is committed

Suborbitalcraft are committed to a landing from the time they separate from themother ship ? in the case of Virgin Galactic ? or from the time they depart therunway from a tarmac launch in the case of XCOR's suborbitalmachine.  

"Much like bacon and eggs for breakfast, the chicken isinvolved with the meal but the pig is committed," Witt said. Regardless ofwhether they achieve sub-orbit, they are committed to a landing in about 35minutes at best or 15 minutes in a worst-case scenario of no rocket firing andhaving to land heavy, he explained.

At Mojave Air and Space Port, Witt said that there are fourrunways in their licensed area, with one of them offering pilots a length of12,500 feet by 200 feet wide - one of the longest non-military runways in theregion.

"We have found it essential to have multiple paths fortakeoff abort or wind shifts on return. Justification and lessons learned havebeen shared with the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of CommercialSpace Transportation (FAA/AST) "with passion as a requirement forcommercial spaceport licensing," Witt concluded.

Prevailing winds

Spaceport America's Landeene responded that Mojave Air andSpace 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 facilityadjacent to the White Sands Missile Range. 

"Virgin Galactic will have exclusive use of theairfield at Spaceport America which guarantees a clear runway," Landeeneadded. It is challenging to shut down an active airfield on a regular basis, hesaid, noting that they experienced this issue at the neighboring Las Cruces airportwhen performing the X Prize/NASA/Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

"We also have the clear weather and the option to flyin restricted airspace or national airspace. The availability of clearairspace, low population density, clear weather, and high elevation all makeSpaceport America a unique place to perform space launch activities,"Landeene emphasized.

Moreover, Landeene continued, New Mexico has severalairports within a 30-mile radius of Spaceport America, such as in neighboringHatch, Truth or Consequences, and the White Sands Missile Range - which provideadditional landing options under certain conditions.

The prevailing winds at Spaceport America allow for theprimary runway to be relied on for operations. "We do have plans to extendthe runway to 15,000 feet in the future as well as a cross-wind runway ascustomer needs dictate," Landeene said.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industryfor more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National SpaceSociety's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.comsince 1999.


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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.