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Pie in the Sky

The Countdown to the X Prize begins in Las Cruces on Oct. 9, and the Southwest Regional Spaceport is supposed to launch its first flight next March. But how much of New Mexico's space-entrepreneurial plans are real-and how much is science fiction?

By Jeff Berg

 

So, what does Upham, New Mexico, have in common with the following places? The California Spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force Base; Spaceport Florida at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station; the Virginia Space Flight Center at Wallops Island; the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska; and the Mojave Airport in California.

No, it's not the fact that Upham seems not to really exist (just try to find a ZIP code for Upham). Rather, Upham may soon join the above places as the spot for the nation's sixth licensed spaceport.

Officials from UP Aerospace with
Gov. Bill Richardson at the state capitol.

This month, a swath of southern New Mexico from Las Cruces to Alamogordo to, well, Upham will launch a multi-event celebration of our little corner of the cosmos' future in space, as epitomized by something called the X Prize. The Countdown to the X Prize begins in Las Cruces on Oct. 9.

But even as the hoopla blasts off, the entire process and idea of having a spaceport located in Middleofnowhere, New Mexico, has become increasingly complex and confusing. To many-including me, until I started researching this article-it seemed like the newest high-tech playground for the ultra-wealthy and private business was just one step away from being built in the Chihuahuan Desert. And that is probably true in some respects. In spite of this month's events and notwithstanding the energy and money expended by different groups and by the state, however, New Mexico's future in space remains only a twinkling possibility, and not a sure bet.

The site for the spaceport at Upham was selected because of its encouraging characteristics, such as low population, lack of launch restrictions, elevation (4,600 feet) and weather. The New Mexico State Legislature has coughed up $9 million to begin work on the spaceport. That budget breaks down to $4 million for launch and landing facilities and another $5 million for the planning and operations of the X Prize Cup, an annual event that will showcase personal spaceflight businesses and their goods.

Additionally, this year the legislature created the Spaceport Authority, a new version of the New Mexico Office of Space Commercialization, which dates to 1994. The new authority will be responsible for the construction and control of the Southwest Regional Spaceport. An additional $1 million in capital outlay funds was also granted.

This information and other spaceport details were shared recently when Gov. Richardson announced that the first rocket launch from the Southwest Regional Spaceport is scheduled for March 27, 2006. On Sept. 7, a inaugural ceremony was held at the State Capitol building. Richardson announced that UP Aerospace. would be the first to launch from the currently nonexistent spaceport.

According to the governor, "The rocket that goes up next March will not only lift a payload, it will launch what I believe will ultimately be the most significant commercial space facility in the country. This launch will be a brilliant signal flare that will let the nation and the world know New Mexico's spaceport is open for business. We can now say with certainty that the dream of this spaceport launching a new era in New Mexico's aerospace industry will become reality."

To that end, the Web site of the Connecticut-based UP Aerospace (www.upaerospace.com) says that it "will launch its SpaceLoft rocket on a sub-orbital flight from the facility. The spaceport's christening flight will carry seven experimental and commercial payloads for a variety of scholastic and business entities. After traveling into space, the rocket and its payloads will land in the downrange area of the spaceport. Three launches are planned for 2006, 12 for 2007 and up to 30 in 2008."

According to a press statement issued from Richardson's office, this is just the beginning. Officials see the spaceport as bringing big business to the state: "The Southwest Regional Spaceport New Mexico (has) the potential to generate $500 million a year, with annual tax revenues reaching $20 million, which will create endless new opportunities for high-wage jobs for all New Mexicans, and has huge potential to move New Mexico's economy forward."

The governor adds, "New Mexico is launching a new era of opportunity that will bring with it high-wage jobs and economic growth, particularly for southern New Mexico. It is a cutting-edge initiative that will help us continue to move our state forward."

Work is underway to secure a spaceport license for the facility from the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, which has been licensing spaceports since 1996. The application involves preparing a detailed Environmental Impact Statement. "Changing program requirements" have delayed the impact statement, which was supposed to have been completed long ago; it's now expected to be completed yet this year. After that's done, according to the state Office of Economic Development, FAA officials have "confirmed that the application for licensure of the Southwest Regional Spaceport is 'substantially complete.'" A license will be issued after the environmental impact study is completed.

 

But as you travel along I-25, to where this spaceport is supposed to be, there is nothing there but some nice scenery and a sign pronouncing what may soon be in Upham. And again, Upham, like the spaceport, does not really exist.

John Salassa, executive director of the High Tech Consortium of Southern New Mexico, explains to me that there is still time to build a (my word, not his) slapdash type of spaceport. All that's really needed is to pour a concrete slab and haul in some portable generators.

But the promoters and politicians of the spaceport have far more ambitious plans when it comes to New Mexico's future in space. "This is a milestone event in the history of aerospace," says Eric Knight, CEO of UP Aerospace. "For the first time in all of spaceflight, a facility is now available for regularly scheduled, private space launches. Thanks to the vision of the state of New Mexico, as well as the aerospace capabilities provided by our company, the 'final frontier' is now open to everyone." (Everyone with enough money, that is.)

According to the UP Aerospace Web site, the firm already has "the capability to launch up to 30 space launches per year from New Mexico's Spaceport. The company believes that its unique SpaceLoft rocket provides the world's lowest cost-per-pound of any space-transportation vehicle."

The company says it will "concentrate its services on three markets: (1) Businesses that require economical testing of space-flight hardware, (2) scientific analysis of the earth and in-space phenomena, and (3) research conducted by the educational sector."

According to Jerry Larson, president of UP Aerospace, "New aerospace technologies can now be tested and evaluated quickly at very low cost. And for scientists studying the earth and celestial phenomena, we provide a remarkable in-space vantage point."

Larson goes on to say, "Regarding education, space has been the environment of only a handful of schools with significant financial resources. To level the playing field, we've combined our SpaceLoft rocket with our company's S.T.A.R. (Space Technology & Academic Research) initiative. The result: Colleges and universities with even the smallest budgets can now conduct real science on a real space-flying rocket. It's exciting to provide this capability to such a broad spectrum of students."

Through UP Aerospace's S.T.A.R. education initiative, the company proudly supports the efforts of both NASA's Space Grant and NASA's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) programs. UP Aerospace also works in collaboration with the Air Force's National Aerospace Leadership Initiative and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology "to inspire K-12 students in space science and career opportunities."

This is all good and exciting, but according to an article by Lonnie Sumpter, one of the original front men of the 1992 Southwest Space Task Force, it seems that our legislators did not give the state spaceport authority "any funding for a director, staff or technical support."

 

So, with all of the hopeful thoughts and ideas that are being batted about with the spaceport, just what is the point of having the X Prize Cup? The X Prize Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Missouri, is the group that is now sponsoring the X Prize Cup Contest. The foundation offered an unbelievable prize of $10 million, known as the Ansari X Prize, to the first company that could launch a rocket-powered vehicle 62 miles into space, with the equivalent weight of three human beings, and repeat that feat two weeks later. The X Prize was awarded to Mojave Aerospace Ventures for the flight of SpaceShipOne. Noted aerospace designer Burt Rutan and moneyman Paul Allen were in charge of the first private team to build and fly the winning spacecraft.

The significance of the Ansari X Prize is that it is supposed to "change the way we think about space flight." A major goal is to offer "those of us with the vision to travel to space, that the era of personal space flight in the private sector is just ahead."

The Ansari X Prize was modeled after the Orteig Prize, won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927, for being the first to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. It "mirrors the hundreds of aviation incentive prizes offered early in the 20th century that helped create today's $300 billion commercial aviation industry" (which of course is about to cave in on itself). The X Prize competition was initially announced in St. Louis on May 5, 1996, to honor astronaut Alan Shepard's 1961 flight in the Freedom 7 spacecraft, launched by a Redstone rocket, on a ballistic trajectory suborbital flight that carried him to an altitude of 116 miles. The Ansari X Prize aimed to recreate that flight in the private sector.

Twenty-six teams from seven nations competed for the Ansari X Prize with all types of different aircraft-from balloons to airplanes to traditional rockets-in a competition endorsed by leading space and aviation organizations around the world. The Ansari family was the title sponsor, hence the name.

But awarding the $10 million Ansari X Prize was the beginning, not the end, of an annual event called the X Prize Cup. "This is your space program," an X Prize Cup news release explains. "We've created an event where everyone can come, experience space and be part of the next generation of space flight. Watch the next generations of space vehicles fly, talk to astronauts, see the vehicles up close, fly simulators, learn about the technology, learn about the curriculum available at all level of education, know about the careers available in the contemporary space industry-and begin to dissolve the myth that you will never travel to space in your lifetime. In the spirit of the Ansari X Prize and the largest action-packed spectator events like Grand Prix Racing and the America's Cup, the X Prize Foundation and (the) State of New Mexico have created an important new alliance to host the X Prize Cup and Personal Spaceflight Expo."

New Mexico officially won the right to host the annual X Prize Cup in May 2004 following a national competition conducted by the foundation, winning over Florida, California and Oklahoma. Key to winning, apparently, was the legislature's coughing up of $5 million.

 

Through all of this confusion and acronym mania, you may have also heard about a local group that many people think is actually involved with the X Prize Foundation. The High Tech Consortium (HTC) is not involved with the foundation itself, but rather got involved to help promote the activities that are taking place before the Countdown to the X Prize Cup and Personal Spaceflight Expo that is scheduled to be held at the Las Cruces "International" Airport on Oct. 9.

Julie Seton, founding member and president of the HTC, was involved in the pre-event promotion that helped construct a pleasant, space-mad atmosphere and to get students involved in learning what may take place if the spaceport becomes a reality. Seton, who says she "always wanted to be a stage manager on Broadway," has been very active in other community events. She was responsible for bringing the arts into the X Prize Cup expo. She supported Carolyn Kuhn, HTC's vice president, who put together the "My Space Trip" essay, art poster and digital media competition for Las Cruces area students.

Other related arts events include the screenings of family-friendly science fiction films-last month in Truth or Consequences and Alamogordo, and the first weekend of October in Las Cruces (see "40 Days and 40 Nights" for film titles and details).

Other hoped-for events, much to the frustration of Seton and others, have fallen by the wayside for various reasons.

Seton winces at what she calls the "brain-drain" from southern New Mexico. "Students are not seeing the opportunities in this area," she says, including White Sands, where she is contracted as the deputy director of the TRAC Reimbursable Program. "It has become one of the goals of HTC as the perfect venue to invite people to participate and get involved. . . . People are just not utilizing the resources that are available here."

Other HTC objectives of HTC include establishing partnerships to help promote high-tech industries in southern New Mexico and to help promote a "business atmosphere conducive for growing the high-tech sector of southern New Mexico."

 

So what is going to be the end result of New Mexico's race for space? Your guess is as good as any. It seems to be an expensive project, which has not yet grabbed the interest of the general public, in spite of the vast amount of press and publicity it has received. There is no spaceport. There is a lot of talk and rhetoric. And, as usual, when politics are involved in New Mexico, there is an abundance of hot air.

And who will benefit from a spaceport? It would certainly bring in some high-end jobs, not to mention some curiosity seekers, but is this something New Mexico needs? Let's hope so, since New Mexico's elected officials have already dropped an awful lot of money on this scheme.

But our little competition is already small potatoes! Have you heard about the NEW spaceflight competition based in Las Vegas (the one in Nevada) and sponsored by Bigelow Aerospace? It boasts a prize of $50 million and this really will launch the era of private enterprise in space-honest!

Jeff Berg also wrote this issue's article on caving.
Research assistance by John Salassa and Julie Seton.

 

X Prize Cup Week Schedule of Events

October 1-5.

Albuquerque: Launch of the X Prize Cup Balloon at the New Mexico Balloon Fiesta.

October 6.

Las Cruces: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.-Personal Spaceflight Symposium at NMSU.

Alamogordo: Honor Students Overnight at the Space History Museum.

October 7.

Alamogordo: 9 a.m.-Press conference with Gov. Bill Richardson, followed by Dedication of the New Mexico Space Trail. 9 a.m.-4 p.m.-"Go. Experience Space" education day. 6:30-9:30 p.m.-VIP reception, $100 per ticket benefit. Space History Museum.

October 8.

Alamogordo: 9 a.m.-5 p.m-"Go. Experience Space" public day at Space History Museum.

Las Cruces: X Prize Cup halftime ceremonies at NMSU football game.

Statewide: Ride the New Mexico Space Trail. "Details to be announced soon."

October 9, Las Cruces. (11 a.m.-4 p.m.)

Countdown to the X Prize Cup and Personal Spaceflight Expo at Las Cruces International Airport. Including vintage aircraft fly-in; aircraft, gliders and spacecraft on display; demonstration flights and launches by the XCOR EZ-Rocket Plane, Armadillo Aerospace, ARCA Aerospace, GoldenPalace.com powered by the da Vinci Project, Starchaser Industries, PlanetSpace/Canadian Arrow, RocketPlane, TGV, TIVOLI sounding rocket launches; Ansari X Prize for Kids and model rocket building; "Eggs Prize" launches; weightless rides on Zero Gravity Corp. G-Force One aircraft; exposition traveling trailer with simulators, models, game and films; music, vendors and prizes; announcement of the official program for the inaugural X Prize Cup event in 2006; presentation on New Mexico's History in Aerospace. Adults $8, ages 13-18 $4, 12 and under free.

 

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