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By Senior space writer
updated 8/25/2005 7:07:22 PM ET 2005-08-25T23:07:22

The first official meeting of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority took place in Las Cruces last week to begin work establishing the Southwest Regional Spaceport in New Mexico as a major departure site for commercial space launches, including proposed passenger-carrying rockets offering suborbital and orbital treks.

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The Aug. 17 meeting was “a big step forward,” said Rick Homans, the Spaceport Authority's chairman and secretary of the New Mexico Economic Development Department. Previously, a state office of space commercialization and a New Mexico space commission had done planning work on the spaceport, he said.

“Now we move into implementation,” Homans told Space.com after the kickoff meeting. An early task of the new group is to go through the environmental impact process — an effort that is to start moving forward within the next 30 days, he said.

“That will most likely take until the end of next summer to complete that,” Homans said, with the anticipation that a New Mexico spaceport license would be granted by the Federal Aviation Administration later in 2006, he said.

Homans said that prior to the granting of the FAA license, he expects to see activity at the spaceport next year, possibly including low-altitude experimental rocket testing.

“Once we’ve got the license, then that gives us the ability to actually launch craft into space from there,” Homans added. The New Mexico spaceport itself — near Upham, roughly 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Las Cruces and 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Truth or Consequences — covers about 27 square miles (70 square kilometers), having a north-south configuration, he said.

“There are two private ranches out there … otherwise it’s all state land, and you’ve got to cross a little bit of BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land to get to it,” Homans said. “It’s a clean canvas. We can create it from scratch.”

Entrepreneurs, dreamers, engineers, visionaries
Those working on the New Mexico spaceport have been busy over the last three months. A comprehensive, multiphase strategic plan is under development.

Part of that process has been “talking to players and future players” in the blossoming commercial space arena, Homans noted, “to really get a sense of where they are headed and what they need.”

Those discussions confirmed to Homans a key fact: “This is uncharted terrain right now. …We’re on the frontier here. We’re inventing it as we go.”

There are no models for how a spaceport should be built. You can’t draw from decades of earlier work, Homans observed.

“This is an industry that’s really in its infancy. There are lots of ideas about where it’s headed, and there’s nothing routine about it,” Homans stated. “These are entrepreneurs, dreamers, engineers, visionaries … a unique combination of people and businesses.”

Homans said the New Mexico Spaceport Authority is keen on partnering with private companies that “want to get in on the ground floor of this industry and become financial partners with the state in building and operating the spaceport.”

Site operator licenses
To date, the FAA has licensed five spaceports in the United States, explained Patricia Grace Smith, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation. “That in itself clearly shows the genuine interest in private, commercial space development,” she told Space.com.

The Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, is the only space-related line of business within the FAA.

Since 1996, AST has issued site operator licenses to five spaceports: California Spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Spaceport Florida at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Virginia Space Flight Center at Wallops Island, Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, and Mojave Airport in California.

Smith added that states, communities and investors are converging to capitalize on the promise of space. “These are people with a strong commitment and confidence in the future space development can bring,” she explained.

According to Michael Kelly, vice president of the X Prize Foundation, New Mexico has made an “unshakable commitment” to becoming a leader in facilitating commercial access to space.

Kelly is responsible for all engineering, safety and operational activities associated with the annual X Prize Cup and Personal Spaceflight Expo — a partnership of the X Prize Foundation and the state of New Mexico.

The X Prize Foundation sponsored the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

That purse was won last year by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, led by Burt Rutan, head of Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., and funded by billionaire Paul Allen of Microsoft fame — a team effort that built and flew the world’s first private spacecraft, SpaceShipOne to the edge of space in back-to-back flights.

The X Prize Foundation is also assisting in the development of the New Mexico Southwestern Regional Spaceport.

Thriving incubator
“The first meeting of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority was a milestone transition,” said Kelly, “from the decade-long efforts of the Spaceport Commission to an official, established spaceport program having the full commitment of the state.”

Kelly told Space.com that the Southwest Regional Spaceport has advantages shared by no other location, giving it the potential to be the center for commercial space activities. 

“This year, we have the Countdown to the X Prize Cup, an event which carries forth the momentum established by the Ansari X Prize. Next year will see the first official X Prize Cup event. We hope to grow this to an event on a par with the Reno Air Races, or greater, and in so doing attract more business to the spaceport. We hope to make it a thriving incubator for the personal spaceflight industry of tomorrow,” Kelly said.

Momentum is picking up for the upcoming Countdown to the X Prize Cup, slated for Oct. 6-9 in New Mexico.

Among those showing off their wares is XCOR Aerospace. The company will conduct multiple flight tests of its EZ-Rocket as part of the Countdown to the X Prize Cup activities. XCOR is a California corporation located in Mojave, developing and producing safe, reliable and reusable rocket engines and rocket-powered vehicles.

Piloting the EZ-Rocket during several demonstration flights will be former NASA astronaut Richard Searfoss.

XCOR is one of a rapidly growing roster of rocket roaring events scheduled, including a public symposium on the future of spaceflight at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces on Oct. 6; educational and public activities at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo on Oct. 7-8; and on Oct. 9, the Personal Spaceflight Expo at the Las Cruces International Airport.

Full details and e-tickets are available at www.xprize.org

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