Spaceport America terminal hangar facility
|Airport type||Private commercial spaceport|
|Owner/Operator||New Mexico Spaceport Authority|
|Location||Sierra County, New Mexico,|
near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
|Hub for||Virgin Galactic,|
|Elevation AMSL||4,595 ft / 1,401 m|
Spaceport America—formerly the Southwest Regional Spaceport—is an FAA-licensed spaceport located on 18,000 acres (7,300 hectares) of State Trust Land in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin in New Mexico, United States directly west of and adjacent to U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range. It lies 89 miles (143 km) north of El Paso, 45 miles (72 km) north of Las Cruces, and 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Truth or Consequences.
Spaceport America is "the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport", designed and constructed specifically for commercial users that had not previously been an airport or federal infrastructure of any kind. The site is built to accommodate both vertical and horizontal launch aerospace vehicles, as well as an array of non-aerospace events and commercial activities. Spaceport America is owned and operated by the State of New Mexico, via a state agency, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.
Current tenants of the spaceport include Virgin Galactic, TMD Defense and Space, White Sands Research and Developers and SpinLaunch while Boeing, HyperSciences, UP Aerospace, and Armadillo Aerospace and its successor, Exos Aerospace, have all operated from the spaceport.
Spaceport America was officially declared open on October 18, 2011, the visitor center in Truth or Consequences became fully accessible to the general public on June 24, 2015, and after Virgin Galactic completed the interior buildout, the entire facility was deemed ready for operations in August 2019. Visitors can book tours from Visit Las Cruces or the visitors center in Truth or Consequences.
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The spaceport's initial concept was proposed by Stanford University engineering lecturer and tech startup advisor Dr. Burton Lee in 1990. He wrote the initial business and strategic plans, secured US$1.4 million in seed funding via congressional earmarks with the help of Senator Pete Domenici, and worked with the New Mexico State University Physical Science Laboratory (PSL) to develop local support for the spaceport concept.
In 1992, the Southwest Space Task Force was formed to advance the New Mexico space industry's commercial infrastructure and activity. After several years of study, they focused on a 27-square-mile (70 km2) plot of state-owned land, 45 miles (72 km) north of Las Cruces, as a location for the spaceport.
In 2003, the task force petitioned new Economic Development Cabinet Secretary Rick Homans who then picked up the torch. Homans presented the idea to state Governor Richardson and negotiated with the X Prize Foundation to locate the X Prize Cup in New Mexico. Following an announcement by Governor Richardson and Sir Richard Branson that the new Virgin Galactic would make New Mexico its world headquarters, the state legislature enacted laws providing for the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport in 2006. The spaceport was branded Spaceport America.
Construction of the first temporary launch facility at the spaceport site began on April 4, 2006. Early operations of the spaceport utilized this temporary infrastructure, some of it borrowed from neighboring White Sands Missile Range.
In early 2007, red tape was still in the process of being cleared and the spaceport itself was still little more than "a 100-foot (30 m) by 25-foot (7.6 m) concrete slab." That slab would eventually be part of the launch facility for the spaceport's first tenant UP Aerospace. On April 3, voters in neighboring Doña Ana County approved a spaceport tax that would go into effect upon final approval from the Spaceport America host county Sierra County.
The first images of the then planned spaceport's Hangar Terminal Facility (HTF) were released in early September 2007.
In April 2008, the voters in Sierra County approved the plan, releasing over US$40 million in funding for the spaceport. Voters in the third county of Otero, however, rejected the spaceport tax during November general elections. In spite of this, Spaceport America had what it needed to move forward and great headway toward its completion began.
In December 2008, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority received its launch license for vertical and horizontal launch from the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Shortly thereafter, Virgin Galactic signed a 20-year (240-month) lease as the anchor tenant, agreeing to pay US$1 million per year for the first five years in addition to payments on a tiered scale based on the number of launches the company makes.
In December, Gerald Martin Construction Management, from Albuquerque, was chosen to oversee construction. As of April 2009[update], the first of 13 bid packages for the spaceport was expected to be publicly released later that month and all 13 bid packages were scheduled to be released by June 2009. "The goal is to have [construction] completed in 17 months, by December 2010."
By February 2010, the in mid-construction budgetary estimate for completion was $198 million.
By October 2010, with the runway complete and the terminal building under active construction, the budgetary estimate for completion increased to $212 million. Approximately two-thirds of that were provided by the state of New Mexico and the remainder from "construction bonds backed by a tax approved by voters in Doña Ana and Sierra counties."
The spaceport was officially declared open on October 18, 2011 but the tenant did not move in and begin operations right away. By August 2011, Spaceport America was substantially complete and the cost of the entire project was $209 million.
The interior of the building was the responsibility of tenant Virgin Galactic, and work on the interior began only in 2018. By August 2019, interior work was complete, and the entire facility was deemed ready for operations.
Increased private funding
With the beginning of the administration of New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez in 2011, the state government took a new approach to increase private investment to complete the spaceport project. In order to oversee the new effort, Governor Martinez appointed an entirely new board of directors for the Spaceport Authority and removed Executive Director Rick Homans.[needs update]
By 2013, the Spaceport had signed SpaceX as an additional tenant for vertical takeoff and vertical landing flight testing of prototype reusable rockets such as the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle. The facilities at Spaceport America were never used for Falcon 9 RDV and equipment staged was eventually moved back to Texas.
Delays in operation of the anchor tenant
There have been a series of delays in Virgin Galactic beginning flight operations at Spaceport America. The multi-year extension of the test program and the re-designed engine announced in May 2014 were responsible for much of the delay. In 2014, the spaceport announced that it was seeking additional tenants and hoped to sign another one in the next year.
Budgetary difficulties in operating the spaceport have become salient in New Mexico politics. The annual cost of providing fire protection services that have been contracted for the mostly unused spaceport is approximately US$2.9 million.
The inflight breakup and crash of the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle—VSS Enterprise—in October 2014 has raised questions about the future of the spaceport. With further delays to the start of Virgin Galactic commercial operations, ostensibly to at least 2016, the spaceport may need funding from state or local authorities in New Mexico in order to keep the basic fire and security and administrative operation underway. The Spaceport Authority asked the New Mexico legislature in November 2014 for US$1.7 million in emergency funds to maintain operations until 2016, the earliest date at which Virgin is expected to be able to begin commercial flight operations.
SpaceX has also been delayed in initiating test flights of F9R Dev2 at the spaceport from when they were originally anticipated.
In May 2015, budgetary details made public revealed that the substantially unused spaceport has an annual deficit that has been running approximately US$500,000, with the deficit being made up by state taxpayers. The primary planned revenue in the times of delayed operations by Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, with limited operations by other minor tenants, is local tax revenue, paid by the taxpayers of Sierra and Dona Ana counties.
In May 2019, Virgin Galactic announced that they were finally ready to relocate all of their spaceflight activities to the spaceport. Virgin completed the interior fit out work in mid-2019 and the entire facility was deemed ready for operations in August 2019. WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo moved to the Spaceport in February 2020. The operational flights are expected to begin sometime in 2020. In 2019, Infiniti was testing some of its current models at the Spaceport America desert test tracks, such as its Q50 sports sedan and Q60 sports coupe.
On June 25, 2020 Virgin Galactic carried out its second successful glide flight of its spaceship over Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. The first flight took place in May 2020.
The western zone of the Facility (25,597 sq ft.) houses support and administrative facilities for Virgin Galactic and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. The central zone contains the double-height hangar (47,000 sq ft.) to store White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo craft. The eastern zone (29,419 sq ft.) encompasses the principal operational training area, departure lounge, spacesuit dressing rooms, and celebration areas.
The onsite restaurant and mission control room have direct east views across the apron, runway and landscape beyond.
The spaceport was built with environmental sustainability in mind. Designed to meet the requirements for LEED Gold Certification, it incorporates "Earth Tubes" to cool the building, solar thermal panels, underfloor radiant cooling and heating, and natural ventilation.
A visitor center was planned in downtown Truth or Consequences (the closest town) to provide shuttle bus services to the Spaceport. However, due to delays in spaceport operations and reduction in spaceport authority revenues, the plans were considerably scaled back in January 2014. Rather than the planned US$20 million facilities, the revised plan in January 2014 had only a US$7.5 million capital budget. Rather than the "planned $13 million visitor center at the spaceport [there will be a] $1.5 million hangar" and the Truth or Consequences visitor center budget request was cut to US$6 million from the original US$7 million. By May 2015, news media were reporting that the spaceport authority "spent so much money with a company to design the visitors’ experience that it had no money left over to actually build the facilities for it."
The spaceport is located under FAA Special Use Airspace Restricted Areas 5111A and 5111B. When both these areas are active the airspace is restricted from surface to 'unlimited'.
As of August 2012[update], Over 300 suborbital flights had been successfully launched from Spaceport America, The primary user is UP Aerospace with 13 launches of SpaceLoft XL sounding rockets from 2006 to 2019 and 5 launches of prototype vehicles from 2007 to 2009. Boeing, SpinLaunch, HyperSciences, EXOS Aerospace, TMD Defense and Space and White Sands Research and Developers are current tenants.
In order to repay the construction bonds and eventually meet operating expenses from Spaceport operations, the spaceport authority has forecast a number of revenue streams. These include lease payments, takeoff and launch payments, tours, etc.
However, anchor tenant Virgin Galactic had paid only US$2.7 million in facility lease payments as of November 2014, and was projected to pay US$50,000 to 100,000 for each six-passenger flight of SpaceShipTwo once flight operations begin. Due to continued long-term revenue shortfalls, the Spaceport Authority is "working on a business plan that would further expand the search for revenue sources beyond Virgin Galactic ...[targeting] new tenants, including other space ventures, commercial projects, tourism, special events and merchandising."
Spaceport America Cup
An annual rocketry competition and engineering event, Spaceport America Cup, takes place at the site, is an Intercollegiate Rocketry Engineering Competition (IREC)-official event, and is sanctioned by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA). An international field of college and commercial teams operate sounding and sport-class rockets of several varieties and specifications, including solid, liquid, and hybrid fuel rockets, with altitude ranges between 3 and 10 km, and utilize the airspace of the immediate area as well as downrange toward the White Sands facilitates.
As of 2020, eleven entities have operated, or announced plans to operate, from Spaceport America- Virgin Galactic, SpinLaunch, Up Aerospace, Boeing, HyperSciences, EXOS Aerospace, TMD Defense and Space, White Sands Research and Developers and C6 Launch Systems.
From the early stages,[when?] the spaceport has been host to several vertical launches by UP Aerospace. As the first tenant, it had access to multiple functional vertical takeoff facilities of the then incomplete spaceport.As of 2015[update], UP Aerospace continues to operate its suborbital flights from the spaceport. UP Aerospace continues to operate from the spaceport as of November 2019.
Armadillo Aerospace launched their suborbital rockets (for example, the STIG-A rocket) from the spaceport in the early years of the 2010s. Armadillo Aerospace went out of business in 2013. It only conducted a few test flights from the spaceport.
As Spaceport America's anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic is to be given primary access to the 12,000-foot-long (3,700 m) runway, from which it will operate 21⁄2 hour commercial suborbital trips. As of February 2011[update], Virgin Galactic has accepted over 400 reservations and collected $50 million in deposits.
Virgin Galactic's suborbital ship, SpaceShipTwo (SS2), is carried by its mother-craft White Knight Two (WK2) to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,000 m) before being released on a suborbital trajectory under its own rocket power. Space Ship Two's launches will apex[clarification needed] 70 miles (110 km) from the Earth's surface at more than 3,200 km/h (2,000 mph). Customers will take part in 3 days pre-flight preparation, bonding, and training onsite at the spaceport.
In May 2014 Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic signed an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate routine space missions launched from Spaceport America, setting out how they will be integrated into the National Airspace System. Virgin plans to initially fly every six weeks.
Virgin Galactic flight operations at the new spaceport have been delayed several times, and as of November 2014[update], have not begun nine years after the Virgin project was initiated. An October 2014 in-flight breakup of VSS Enterprise—the first flight article SpaceShipTwo during a test flight at Mojave Air and Space Port in California—has further delayed the start of Virgin suborbital spaceflights from Spaceport America.
In 2013, Virgin Galactic had planned for a 2015 flight to stage Zero G Colony, a music festival featuring Lady Gaga however this never occurred when Virgin did not get to passenger flight operations.
Commercial flights are expected to start sometime in the year 2021, following the flight of CEO Richard Branson on a flight expected late in the first quarter.
In 2016 Google tested high altitude solar powered drones to deliver Internet at 5G speeds. It used the runway and dedicated flight controls at the Space Flight Operations Center at Spaceport. It also leased a hangar from Virgin Galactic.
Exos Aerospace, the successor company of Armadillo Aerospace, has conducted 4 suborbital rocket flights with its SARGE rocket from the spaceport. The first flight took place in 2018; three flights took place in 2019. The flights have met with difficulties and failures; none has been completely successful. The flights have mostly been carrying research and technology payloads, for example for NASA.
C6 Launch Systems
In October 2020, Spaceport America signed an agreement with Canadian Corporation C6 Launch Systems to provide services, resources, and access to vertical launch sites facilities for testing operations and activities. Starting January 2021, the Canadian rocket company will install a new vertical test stand and conduct system integration tests including several engine firings. The various tests are aimed to validate the avionics, engine control, ground control and communications subsystems.
Previous and potential ongoing operations
X Prize Foundation
Back in 2005, Spaceport America was expected to be the annual venue for the X Prize Cup suborbital spaceflight competitions, once it was fully operational. That series of competitions never materialized.
In May 2013, SpaceX announced that the high-altitude, high-velocity test flights part of its reusable launch system development program would be done at Spaceport America near Las Cruces, New Mexico — and not at the Federal Government's adjacent White Sands Missile Range facility as previously planned. SpaceX signed a three-year lease for land and facilities at the newly operational spaceport. SpaceX indicated in May 2013 that they did not yet know how many jobs would move from Texas to New Mexico.
SpaceX began constructing a 30 m × 30 m (98 ft × 98 ft) pad at Spaceport America in May 2013, 7 km (4.3 mi) southwest of the spaceport's main campus, planning to lease the pad for US$6,600 per month plus US$25,000 per test flight.
A third flight test vehicle—F9R Dev2—was initially planned to be flown only at the high-altitude test range at Spaceport America and at altitudes of up to 91,000 meters (300,000 ft). In September 2014, following the destruction of the F9R Dev1, SpaceX changed the plans, so the F9R Dev2 vehicle would fly first in McGregor for low-altitude testing. The initial FAA permit to fly the Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle at McGregor in Texas was open until February 2015.
In May 2015, a specialized press article stated that due to the technical success of the landing attempts on the sea on the autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS), SpaceX was planning on using the New Mexico site for testing the returned stages. But to date, no work has occurred at the facility.
On February 19, 2015 SpaceX announced that the F9R Dev2 would be discontinued.
SpaceX continues to have an open contract with Spaceport America for potential future public use, or any other probable usage, alongside their own private launch site further south down the Rio Grande near the Gulf of Mexico in Brownsville, Texas. Towns near Boca Chica, Texas, are concerned by the spaceflight tests, so Spaceport America will continue to have potential use for SpaceX.
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Media related to Spaceport America at Wikimedia Commons
- Official website
- Aerial view of Spaceport America
- Encyclopedia Astronautica
- National Geographic Megastructures episode on Spaceport America, 45 minutes duration.
- Spaceport news archive from Las Cruces Sun-News
- "Eat My Contrails, Branson!" from SEED magazine
- Officials optimistic, despite delays. First pictures of the emerging SpaceX testing facility