Major Milestones Ahead for New Mexico Spaceport

This story was updated at 6:13 p.m. EST.

New Mexico's Spaceport America, which is being billed as the first "purpose-built" commercial spaceport in the United States, must conquer some challenging milestones that lie ahead if it is to open in late 2009 or early 2010.

The $198 million New Mexico spaceport project will have an 18,000 acre footprint that covers open, generally level range land north of Las Cruces and east of Truth or Consequences. This area was favored for its low population density, uncongested airspace and high elevation.

The spaceport is being designed to support a variety of commercial space businesses. It is intended to serve not only as a hub for the emerging suborbital space tourism market, but also eventually to become a center for handling orbital launch.

Steven Landeene, the newly appointed executive director for Spaceport America, settled into his new post Jan. 7 after his hiring in early December by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority Board.

It is clear that Landeene has hit the ground running — and needs to.

"Certainly, everybody is optimistic. Everyone would like to see ground broken. But of course you've got architectural designs, the whole site to be prepared and bid out before you can break earth ? as well as the environmental impact study," Landeene told Space News in a Jan. 11 telephone interview. "There's a lot of behind-the-scenes activity that has to go on to do a project of this magnitude, prior to the start of digging," he said.

Landeene brings to the project some 20 years experience with Honeywell Aerospace and three years with Landmark Aviation. As the director of aftermarket services marketing, sales and support at Honeywell International Inc., he served as the global marketing and sales support leader for the company's aftermarket services.

Most recently, Landeene served as the director of strategy and planning for sales and marketing of Landmark Aviation out of Phoenix.

Taxing issues

Landeene said one large near-term Spaceport America action item is an April 22 vote in New Mexico's Sierra County to approve a 0.25 percent increase in the gross receipts tax to help foot the bill for building Spaceport America.

Last year, Doña Ana County voted in favor of the spaceport tax — albeit by a slim margin. The final certified spaceport tax election results on April 6, 2007, were 9,020 (50.8 percent) for the measure; 8,750 (49.2 percent) voted against it.

The upcoming April tax vote, if approved, would lead to the creation of a spaceport district that could spend county-collected revenue on the project. Similarly, a spaceport sales tax referendum is to be held in Otero County in the later part of the year, Landeene said.

Sierra County, along with Otero County and Doña Ana County, form a triad of counties that encompass Spaceport America, but the spaceport itself is actually 100 percent located in Sierra County, Landeene stated.

"Like any sales tax vote, taxes are not the most desirable thing for anybody to sign up for," Landeene said. But what is important for the voters to realize, he added, is that the spaceport is a "value proposition" — with the sales tax small relative to the benefit that a county is going to receive — be it from spaceport construction jobs, influencing real estate property value, the flow of tourists, as well as supplying goods and services during spaceport build-up and later operations.

Environmental impact statement

Landeene said there is great interest in shaping a business model that involves Spaceport America and takes into account its potential relationship with neighboring White Sands Missile Range. He also is keen on reaching out to the private sector to support research, development and testing needs.

"I think there's a nice synergy between the two," he said, "a lot there to benefit both parties," Landeene said. "I think it is for the betterment of both entities ? a case where one plus one is three."

An environmental impact statement for Spaceport America also must be completed in order to obtain a Federal Aviation Administration spaceport license that would allow construction work on the spaceport to begin. The Spaceport's challenge will be to prove that the sprawling facility built upon a combination of ranch and state land is environmentally friendly, preserves the frontier history of the area, and coexists with working ranches in the region as the spaceport absorbs some of their acreage and pasture land, Landeene said, adding: "I think we see the light at the end of the tunnel on this one."

Early field work — such as biological and cultural studies — has not revealed any showstopper for the spaceport, he said.

Tetra Tech, an environmental services, water/wastewater management, infrastructure services, consulting and engineering firm headquartered in Pasadena, Calif., has been employed to carry out the environmental impact statement work for Spaceport America.

"We're still targeting for an end of 2008 groundbreaking," Landeene said.

That target date is going to be challenging, Landeene admitted. "In environmental impact studies, anything can happen. It's not all in our control."

Design work

The timing of that groundbreaking is also a pressure point, in that Spaceport America construction must be in lockstep with their pacing customer — Virgin Galactic.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Companies, announced in December 2005 that Virgin Galactic, a commercial public space tourism enterprise, will locate its world headquarters and mission control in New Mexico.

On June 13, 2006, New Mexico announced that DMJM has been selected to provide architecture and engineering services for Spaceport America. The firm's project list cites Marvel Superhero Island in Orlando, Fla.; the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory in Washington; and renovation work on several large airports.

Last August, a team of U.S. and British architects and designers were selected to design the primary 9,000 square-meter terminal and hangar facility at Spaceport America. That team consists of URS Corp. and the U.K. firm, Foster + Partners.

The terminal and hangar are projected to cost about $31 million, and will provide a destination experience for visitors to Spaceport America. It will include Virgin Galactic's pre-flight and post-flight training facilities and lounges. A maintenance hangar will house two White Knight 2 carrier planes and five SpaceShipTwo suborbital craft, now in development by Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif. In addition, the complex is home to the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

Meanwhile, the spaceport's first launch tenant has ongoing operations at the future locale of Spaceport America.

Launch Pad One

On Dec. 19, Connecticut-based UP Aerospace Inc. lofted a rocket from one part of the site — a liftoff that was both non-public and unannounced prior to the flight. The rocket reached a planned altitude of 758 meters and was characterized as a test shot done on behalf of an unidentified client for research and development purposes.

The flight was hailed by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority in a Dec. 19 press statement, noting that it was the second successful launch in 2007 from the Spaceport America site near Las Cruces, N.M.

UP Aerospace conducted the inaugural launch of its SpaceLoft XL rocket from Spaceport America April 28, 2007, flying an array of payloads, including the cremated remains of more than 200 individuals on a suborbital flight for the Houston-based Celestis Inc.

UP Aerospace carried out the inaugural mission from Spaceport America in September 2006, but a design flaw in the rocket prevented it from attaining its desired trajectory.

"We concluded our 2007 operations with a successful test flight for a prominent aerospace client ushering in a new line of business," Jerry Larson, president of UP Aerospace told Space News in a Jan. 16 e-mail. Being a launch services provider for the unspecified client — in addition to the firm's suborbital payload sales — is a new business avenue, he added, one that will "reveal huge possibilities" for Spaceport America and UP Aerospace.

"2008 looks to be a busy year for us at Spaceport America's Launch Pad One," Larson explained. The successful test flight operation in December is to be followed by another flight for the same client, along with gearing up for additional SpaceLoft XL launches later in the year, he said.

"It's a rare opportunity to be a part of shaping a spaceport from a clean sheet," Larson concluded.

Bringing on a full-time executive director for Spaceport America is a positive and necessary development, said Burton Lee, a venture capital professional and managing partner of Innovarium Ventures of Washington.

"But he has his work cut out for him ? and it's imperative that he receive the support from the highest levels in the state of New Mexico," Lee told Space News in a Jan. 14 phone interview.

Lee said Landeene also must receive the adequate level of technical advice and advisory services to continue Spaceport America on its schedule and meet its obligations to its first and major client, Virgin Galactic.

Indeed, putting in place Spaceport America comes with a lot of tentacles, Landeene noted, from environmental impact work and assuring county and state-wide support to its actual construction and operation on high-desert rangeland.

"It's not just about creating a runway and a hangar. It is about creating a spaceport facility that's environmentally friendly, having a look and feel that's unique and like nothing that's ever been done before ? something that has a memorable and iconic type of global attraction to it," Landeene concluded. "We've got a big project ahead of us ? and a few things to do."