By Todd G. Dickson The Las Cruces Bulletin
The desert between Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences was host to an image in October that was sent worldwide – British billionaire Richard Branson hanging by ropes off the side of a glass-walled balcony for the terminal hangar at Spaceport America.
The Oct. 17 event was the ceremonial dedication for the 110,152-square-foot building that will hold Virgin Galactic’s fleet of spaceliners and be where its affluent passengers begin and end their $200,000 rides into space.
The Virgin Galactic system launches its spaceship from midair using a hybrid rocket engine. When asked about when the craft would be flying into space, Branson was only willing to say the first rocket-powered flight tests would be sometime in 2012, but wouldn’t say exactly when he would begin flying passengers to achieve the goal of taking 500 people to space the first year of operations.
Branson told reporters he couldn’t afford even the marginal failure rate of NASA space flight experience. Branson said he plans to conduct many test flights before those passengers are taken to space, with him and his family being the first passengers. Virgin’s first spaceliner has made more than 70 flight tests, including a number of solo glide flights of SpaceShip Two, a six-passenger version of the twoseater that was the first private-sector rocket vehicle to reach suborbital space in 2004.
Creating the spaceliner fleet is “the biggest dream of my lifetime,” Branson said. “I still get goose bumps every time I think that I’m doing this,” he said.
Called “Keys to a New Dawn,” the terminal hangar dedication signaled that construction was nearly finished on the $32.5 million building, which is designed by URS/Foster + Partners to both be modern and blend in with the surrounding desert. It is LEED certified gold for its environmental sensitivities and energy efficiencies.
Virgin Galactic designers and interior architects will begin working on making the insides of the hangar as other-worldly and upscaled as the exterior.
In return for building the terminal hangar and two-mile-long runway at the spaceport, Virgin Galactic has promised to set up its headquarters in New Mexico, and Las Cruces will be home to its first offices opening in January 2012.
Virgin has already hired more than 100 people, many of them Americans, because large-scale rocketry falls under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) passed after the 9/11 attacks.
As work continues to make sure the spaceliner is safe for its passengers, the company is now focusing on preparing the on-ground experiences. Virgin plans to fly at least twice a day with passengers arriving two days before their flight. Those passengers also are expected to bring family, friends and others during their visit. Virgin is currently assessing what kind of “tourism infrastructure” is available in southern New Mexico.
Virgin also is looking into establishing reliable sources of materials, equipment and facilities near Spaceport America. One of the critical issues facing the tourism and supply chain economic development for the spaceport is adding suppliers to liability protection, which lawmakers have only been willing to give to the main launch companies such as Virgin. Without similar liability protections given to those supporting the companies taking passengers on space flights, spaceport supporters are saying the effort won’t generate many jobs, especially if Spaceport America’s business becomes limited to only government and testing launches.
One local company, Barnett’s Las Cruces Harley-Davidson dealership, debuted merchandise that flew to suborbital space 73 miles over Spaceport America in a rocket launch May 20. Along with student educational experiments, the UP Aerospace rocket carried 30 insignia pins for Barnett’s. The three varieties of pins all come with certificates about the flight and a display case to be sold online for between $3,000 and $5,000 each.
Other companies eye spaceport
In 2011, NASA awarded companies contracts to provide near-space flight services include several companies working out of Spaceport America. Each of the companies will integrate and fly technology payloads to the boundary of space using commercial suborbital launch systems as part of a package of contracts worth a combined total of $10 million.
As part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, the seven companies selected will receive two-year contracts that will allow NASA to deliver research and technology payloads by drawing from a pool of commercial space companies.
The selected companies include: Armadillo Aerospace of Heath, Texas; Near Space Corp. of Tillamook, Ore.; Masten Space Systems of Mo-jave, Calif.; UP Aerospace Inc. of Highlands Ranch, Colo.; Virgin Galactic, anchor tenant at Spaceport America; Whittinghill Aerospace LLC of Camarillo, Calif.; and XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif. Besides Virgin Galactic, Armadillo and UP Aerospace have conducted launches from Spaceport America.
“This is exciting news for the future of the commercial space industry and Spaceport America,” said New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) Executive Director Christine Anderson. “UP Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace and Virgin Galactic are already clients of our spaceport, and we are in a unique position to help these companies and the others deliver on their new NASA contracts.”
Armadillo Aerospace began flight testing of multiple vehicles at Spaceport America in 2011 and UP Aerospace has conducted nine launches from Spaceport America since 2006. Spaceport America also has been working with aerospace firms Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Moog-FTS for research and development flight tests of designs for systems, such as reusable rocket boosters that glide back to the ground after launch.
Other Spaceport America milestones in 2011 included the awarding of contracts for different services. Enterprise Advisory Service Inc. (EASI) has been awarded a contract to provide general services for Spaceport America. EASI will have nine New Mexico resident staff members at the spaceport, while 29 local subcontractors – 22 from Las Cruces, five from Albuquerque and two from El Paso – will be available to support surge activities.
EASI was awarded the two-year base contract for $630,125 as a firm fixed price for key personnel and a not-to-exceed value of almost $1.2 million that is managed through task authorizations by the NMSA. As its primary function, EASI will develop policy and procedures for Spaceport America’s general services requirements, which will include: maintenance of buildings, utilities, roads and airfield; grounds keeping, waste management, janitorial services, fuel storage operations and maintenance; and the fueling of motor and air vehicles.
IDEAS, is the contractor to develop the Spaceport America Visitor experience. The Orlando, Florida-based company was awarded a two-phase contract of a not-to exceed value of $7.5 million to oversee the design and development of the visitor experience and related facilities at Spaceport America, as well as the design, fabrication and installation of all exhibits and attractions for visitors to the spaceport.
The company will also conduct market research, enhance branding and marketing, as well as broker alliance and sponsorship development opportunities. The IDEAS team includes Integrated Insight Inc., ORCA Consulting LLC, Cordova Marketing Group, Exline Design and Architecture, MYDesign Inc. and Blackhorse Worldwide. New Mexico team members are SMPC Architects of Albuquerque and Larry Littlebird of Santa Fe.
Team IDEAS clients have included every major Walt Disney theme park and resort, major Universal Studios theme parks, NASCAR, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, the U.S. Capitol, the Statue of Liberty, the Air Force and the Navy.
“Their relevant experience in the entertainment and education industry, with an emphasis on creative storytelling and a strong focus on education and learning design, is a great match for Spaceport America,” Anderson said.
Gov. Susana Martinez has set a goal of making Spaceport America able to operate without state support, but getting to that point of operations is expected to take at least another year of state-funded support through the New Mexico Economic Development Department.