The New Mexico Spaceport Authority has approved a $7 million extension to the runway at Spaceport America to accommodate safety and all-season flying concerns raised by Virgin Galactic. The runway will be extended from 10,000 to 12,000 feet.
NMSA Chairman Rick Holdridge said Virgin Galactic originally wanted a 15,000-foot runway, but the state decided it couldn’t afford it under the original $209 million budget. So, a 10,000-foot runway was built with a provision that the state pay for extending it if necessary.
Virgin Galactic recently approached the spaceport authority saying that the heat and wind at Spaceport America would restrict its ability to carry out launches safely year-round, Holdridge said.
“As they began flying their airplane and doing weather analyses, they determined it was going to be very difficult to do year-round launches at the spaceport,” he said.
Spaceport authority board member Scott Krahling, also a Doña Ana County commissioner, said the state’s contract with the company specified that New Mexico wouldn’t have to pay the cost of any additional safety modifications if it would cause the total spaceport cost to surpass the $225 million mark.
“So, since we never reached that level, we have to do it,” Krahling said.
The original 10,000-foot runway only cost $27 million, or $2.7 million per 1,000 feet. The extension will cost about $3.5 million per 1,000 feet. Some of this increase is likely due to inflation while the rest are probably the fixed costs, such as engineering, that go with runway construction regardless of length.
NMSA officials also detailed the safety considerations behind the extension:
“It’s really being done for safety,” spaceport spokesman David Wilson said. “It was a guess until they started dropping it and simulating and doing different scenarios, how this thing was going to behave on the runway. This is all a product of the testing and the characteristics of the vehicle.”
…One scenario considered was if the rocket ship’s engines did not fire. That would require the craft to glide back to the spaceport, loaded with unburned fuel. That would mean the craft would be heavier and would require more room to land.
Other factors involve New Mexico’s altitude and high temperatures, which make the air thinner.
“That dictates longer runways,” Wilson said.
Officials said that $5 million of the runway cost would be taken from the $15 million budget for a pair of spaceport visitors centers in Hatch and Truth or Consequences.
But Holdridge said that doesn’t mean the agency will cut back on the scale of its plans for the visitors centers. Instead, it’s created a new plan for financing the projects, he said.
Instead of the state paying the cost upfront, it will seek developers who’ll finance construction, in return for the spaceport authority entering into a long-term lease for the finished buildings, Holdridge said. Then, the state will seek an operator for the visitors centers, which will pay a fee to the spaceport authority. The fees in turn will be used to make the lease payments, he said.