Spaceport America Seeking Additional $92.6 Million for Improvements

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor/Publisher

It’s budget season again in Sante Fe. As usual, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) is seeking money for additional upgrades to Spaceport America.

The Albuquerque Journal has a story outlining a series of requests totaling nearly $93 million. I have helpfully summarized the information in the table below.

AgencyProjectDetailsAmount (Millions $)
NMSAInfrastructure improvementsIncludes $25 million for welcome center and visitor access control installations$57
NMSASpace vehicle and payload processing centersOn-site assembly of rockets and installation of microgravity experiments for horizontal and vertical launches$20
NMSANew taxiwayFirst phase of new taxiway to run along side existing 12,000 ft runway$10
NMSAInformation technologyModern IT control center for spaceport’s communications infrastructure$2
Governor’s OfficeSpaceport operationsIncrease from current $1 million largely to increase staffing$3.6

New Mexico has already spent $220 million building the spaceport plus $25 million in capital expenditures for related infrastructure improvements.

New Mexico built the spaceport after reaching an agreement with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to become the anchor tenant for 20 years. When the deal was announced in December 2005, Virgin predicted it would begin to fly space tourists aboard its SpaceShipTwo vehicle by 2010 and that 50,000 passengers would reach suborbital space by 2019.

The total to date has been zero due to delays by Virgin Galactic. While awaiting the start of crewed flights, groups have launched suborbital sounding rockets carrying scientific experiments and technology demonstrations from the spaceport.

After a decade of delays, Branson’s company is finally planning to fly from the southern New Mexico spaceport this year. The company will begin with flight tests followed by the first commercial flight with Branson aboard. Virgin hopes to fly him in time for his 70th birthday on July 18.

State officials are ramping up for the start of commercial operations, hoping the spaceport will finally generate the thousands of jobs promised to taxpayers when it was announced 14 years ago.

Dale Dekker, co-founded of a booster group named Ambassadors for Spaceport America, predicted great things for Branson’s flight.

“We believe that investments in the spaceport will pay off this year with a global event that New Mexico has really never experienced before,” Dekker told the Journal. “When Richard Branson boards the first rocket, it will attract national and global attention, offering an opportunity for New Mexico to show off all its space-related assets. We believe it will be seen by billions, earning the state media attention equivalent to the Super Bowl or the Olympics.”

Spaceport America’s CEO told the Albuquerque Journal that the suborbital flights will attract large crowds.

Spaceport America must be prepared to host hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists, as well as new firms that may want to locate at the facility, both to provide goods and services to Virgin Galactic and other companies operating at the spaceport, and to conduct their own space-related activities there, said Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks.

“After Branson flies, there will be Virgin Galactic flights every other week, or every third week, and people will come out to see it in big crowds,” Hicks said. “We need a visitor welcoming center to accommodate and control crowds of spectators – a place where they can look off in the distance to watch flights take off.”

We’ll see. After watching Virgin’s flight tests here in Mojave, I can attest that they not nearly on the scale of orbital launches that I have seen in person over the years.

A couple of minutes before it drops SpaceShipTwo, the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship releases twin vapor trails so observers on the ground can see it. After it is dropped, SpaceShipTwo ignites its engine for one minute as it streaks across the sky.

Following engine shutdown, the space plane disappears from sight as it flies up to suborbital space. Observers on the ground don’t see SpaceShipTwo again until after it descends to a lower altitude during its glide back to the spaceport.

The flights lack the power, grandeur and power of much larger orbital rockets that take off from the ground. Unless observers on the ground have a live video feed from SpaceShipTwo, it’s very hard to know what is actually happening during the flight.