Futuristic Looking Spaceport America Near Completion in New MexicoSpaceport America, dubbed as the first spaceport in the world, looks like a gigantic moth, its rounded wings outspread against the arid, reddish-brown dirt of southern New Mexico. The view from east reveals a curved, pitched glass facade, soaring steel hanger doors and a white-on-white interior. The lofty architecture encapsulates the equally lofty dream of this complex – to serve as the launch-pad for commercial spaceflight and the dawn of second space age.
The $209 million project has attracted worldwide attention because of its bold premise, stunning architecture and the fact that it is home to the world’s first commercial passenger spaceline company, Virgin Galactic which has signed a 20-year lease and has already launched 12 suborbital flights from the spaceport as of August 2012.
Spaceport America includes basic operational infrastructure such as an airfield, launch pads, terminal / hangar facility, emergency response capabilities, utilities and roadways. The site will be capable of accommodating the activities of both vertical and horizontal takeoff space launch vehicles, serving as the base for pre-flight and post-flight activities, and providing a tourism experience for interested visitors and spectators.
The complex is located in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin in New Mexico, United States just west of the White Sands Missile Range, about 140 km north of El Paso. The low-lying form is dug into the landscape to exploit the thermal mass, which buffers the building from the extremes of the New Mexico climate as well as catching the westerly winds for ventilation; and maximum use is made of daylight via skylights.
To say the site is remote doesn’t do it justice. A power substation had to be installed, wells dug, water and sewer systems put in place. And while the spaceport will have a restaurant, at the moment the nearest place to grab a meal is more than 20 miles away. Although Spaceport America officially opened in 2010, the public areas aren't slated for completion until 2013 by which Spaceport Authority hopes to make the place more inviting. Plans are afoot for an elaborate visitor center complete with interactive exhibits devoted to all manner of space-oriented activities.
Official website: http://spaceportamerica.com
Five years from now, this hunk of remote ground will be the place for shuttling tourists to suborbital space, launching small satellites, and serving as a hub for all things new space. Or so the tenants of Spaceport America and the New Mexico state government hope.
But right now, the easiest thing to notice about Spaceport America is that it's empty. There's a full-scale model of SpaceShipTwo in an otherwise empty hangar and a garage full of firetrucks for emergencies that aren't happening yet.
Located in the Jornada del Muerto Desert outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Spaceport America opened in 2011 as the hopeful epicenter of private spaceflight. When I took a Columbus Day tour this month, however, the place seemed barren. There were the two tour operators, three firemen, and a security guard. There wasn't a rocket in sight, nor a flight-ready spacecraft. Just a g-force machine to show visitors what it would be like to ride to space. (The verdict: it was really fun, although at 1.5 Gs I don't think we were even experiencing first-stage separation.)
The spaceport itself is gorgeous, based on state-of-the-art architectural design from Foster + Partners. There's a 12,000-foot runway that goes as far as the eyes can see. The Space Operations Center has acoustic tile to prevent echoing. Still, you can't walk around for long without noticing that no one has shown up for the party yet. There's one room that seemed entirely devoted to a server stack full of computers that wasn't yet set up – but the wires and racks were ready for when they showed up.
The rhetoric you hear at Spaceport America is more out of Silicon Valley than the Elephant Butte Lake area. Disruption. Changing the industry. Slaying the beast of inefficient government launches with a new audacity and ferocity. Companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are finally opening up the frontiers of space to everyone, democratizing it. Government inefficiency comes up repeatedly during the tour, somewhat ironically at a state government-owned, privately leased facility. There seems to be both a reverence and respect for NASA and an iconoclast approach that sees it as an ivory tower ready to be replaced by Space 2.0 or New Space or the latest iteration of the term.
So what happened? Virgin Galactic promised flights by 2011, but SpaceShipTwo has been perpetually behind schedule. The SpaceShipTwo crash further sidelined Virgin's expansion efforts. And if you judge by the company's job postings, it seems that much of the focus is still on the Mojave complex in California, though it's looking for basic support staff in Truth or Consequences.
After the SpaceShipTwo crash in November 2014, Virgin Galactic (and its craft manufacturer, The Spaceship Company) are trying to reassert themselves as a force in private spaceflight that can safely ferry tourists to a suborbital trip and bring them back down, all launched from a massive plane that flies up 50,000 feet before rockets on the ship accomplish the rest. But right now, that's not happening. And that's leaving Spaceport America without its anchor tenant.
SpaceX has leased space here for some launches. It undertook testing for the Grasshopper rocket at Spaceport America in 2013, and may see another iteration of Falcon 9 tested there in the near future. But SpaceX's permanent facility sites seem to be more focused on Florida or Texas than Truth or Consequences. Even though Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant here, if SpaceX does nothing with the launch pad, it could further dissuade new tenants from moving in, leaving Spaceport America with two tenants who pay rent to do nothing with the facilities, and a few defunct former tenants like Armadillo Aerospace who briefly called it home.
Some New Mexico politicians even want to sell off the port to pay back debt from the construction, money that should have come rolling in once Virgin America's promise of "launches within two years" was uttered in 2009.
There are the near-term to raise revenue, like an array of up to 47 satellite dishes to nab data from orbiting private satellites. But right now, Spaceport America is cycling through its plan Bs for making money. The tour bus I went on. The Gary Oldman movie filmed there just a few weeks back.
The promise of private parties, other film shoots, concerts, and more cultural attractions. It's a lot. But it's not a space launch. "That place is a shopping center, and Virgin Galactic is your anchor tenant — but if Virgin Galactic is not there, you're not going to attract anybody else," New Mexico state Sen. George Munoz told NBC.
There's hope here. It's in the air. Or, our paid tour guides say it is. But right now, Spaceport America is an idea without thinkers. It needs launches if it's going to become the hub of tomorrow, instead of the $200 million museum to a promised future.
But hey, I did manage to beat one of the space-based video games there, successfully executing a Hohmann transfer.