Mojave, New Mexico Spaceports Find Complementary Roles

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo, with the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo attached, soars in a test flight over Spaceport America in the desert of southern New Mexico. Both ships were designed and built in Kern County. (Credit: David Wilson)

by Steven Mayer
Californian Staff Writer

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. — If you ever visit this quirky little village named for a 1950s-era TV game show, you may think you’ve arrived in the middle of nowhere.

But you’re nowhere close.

Drive just another hour into the desert and watch as a stingray-shaped structure with an earth-colored roof slowly rises up from the desert floor like something out of a Star Wars movie.

You’ve arrived at Spaceport America, the $209 million great gleaming hope of the commercial space industry in New Mexico.

If everything goes as planned, this taxpayer-funded base for privately funded space flights could become the envy of aerospace-friendly Kern County.

More likely, observers say, it will be a symbiotic zig to Kern’s zag.

“This is where the Old West meets the New World,” says spaceport spokesman David Wilson, who gave a Californian reporter a tour of the nearly two-mile long runway, the dome-topped Space Operations Center and the spaceport’s centerpiece, the alien-looking but fabulous Terminal Hangar Facility.

“This is a huge economic promise to the taxpayers,” Wilson says. “We need to show them what we did with their investment.”

WhiteKnightTwo is the "mothership" that carries SpaceShipTwo aloft before launch. The pair will carry paying passengers on a wild ride to suborbital space in years to come. Some observers predict flights will begin as early as 2013. Others caution the first tourists in space may have to wait a few more years. (Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America)

COWBOYS AND ASTRONAUTS

Driving east and then south out of Truth or Consequences (locals call it T or C), travelers pass Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande River before heading down out of the arid Fra Cristobal Mountains.

Huge cattle and buffalo ranches, one owned by media tycoon Ted Turner, spread out across the vast basin as far as the eye can see.

Long before New Mexico became a state, Civil War skirmishes were actually fought in this desert region. In the 1880s, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid added their own legends to the area’s rich history.

Along the road to the spaceport, travelers can still see the wagon tracks left by Spanish settlers and other travellers who braved the infamous Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead.

But all of it begins to seem like ancient history as an officer at the spaceport’s guard shack verifies your credentials before allowing access to something one could scarcely imagine just a few years ago: a place where tourists are transformed into astronauts.

RUTAN’S DREAM

It was the summer of 2004 when aerospace entrepreneur Burt Rutan and his Mojave-based company, Scaled Composites, became the first team to successfully send a civilian pilot to suborbital space through a privately funded effort. In September of that year, Rutan would go on to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

In an interview with The Californian just days before that first historic flight, Rutan predicted a successful effort would open the floodgates to interest and investment in commercial spaceflight.

Within 15 years, he said, tourists would be flown to suborbital space, and not long afterward, hotels in Earth orbit and vacations on the moon would become a reality.

Fewer than eight years after that interview, Rutan’s SpaceShipOne is being replaced by SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-crewmember rocketplane being built and tested at Mojave Air & Space Port, just 60 miles from Bakersfield.

When it’s ready for commercial flights, its launch pad will be Spaceport America.

“There is a complimentary interrelationship between Mojave and New Mexico,” says George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, the company overseeing the development of SpaceShipTwo.

Virgin has one foot in each location. As a result, the interrelationship between the research, testing and assembly in Mojave and the launch operations gearing up in New Mexico are critical.

“Our hope is to go to space this year,” Whitesides says, “and begin commercial operations the following year.”

The Terminal Hangar Facility at Spaceport America will house Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. It is also where future tourist astronauts will train for their journey to suborbital space. The beginning of the journey began at Mojave Air & Space Port. (Credit: David Wilson, Spaceport America)

GATEWAY TO SPACE

Spaceport America, billed as the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, shares thousands of square miles of restricted air space with neighboring White Sands Missile Range.

That close proximity to a restricted military facility is yet another parallel with Mojave’s space port, which has close neighbors in Edwards Air Force Base and NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center.

In the future, launches at the New Mexico facility may occur on a daily basis, possibly multiple times per day, Wilson says.

Such a role is not in Mojave’s immediate future, but Mojave Air & Space Port General Manager Stu Witt contends that the east Kern site has the potential to become a busy center of commercial spaceflight.

“Easily doable if the requirement arises,” Witt says.

The New Mexico facility is capable of both horizontal and vertical launches, and the spaceport’s high desert elevation of close to 4,600 feet places rockets that much closer to their destination.

“We have a saying around here,” Wilson says. “The first mile to space is free.”

At 10,000 feet in length and 200 feet wide, the Spaceport America’s runway is nearly two miles in length — big, but not as long as Mojave’s biggest runway.

For Virgin Galactic, going horizontal before going vertical is the best way to go to space.

Here’s how it will work:

After a few days of orientation and training, the six paying passengers and two pilots will board SpaceShipTwo, which will be attached to the midsection of the mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo. The mothership will take off like a conventional airplane and climb to about 50,000 feet.

At that point, the smaller SpaceShipTwo will drop from the mothership, fire its powerful rocket engine and blast toward the heavens, pushing passengers back against their seats at three times the force of gravity.

After 60 to 70 seconds of “burn time,” the passengers will be able to peer through the spaceship windows and see Earth from the black void of space. Unbuckling from their seats, those first space tourists will be able to enjoy a few minutes in zero gravity. Many are expected to experience the “overview effect,” a sense of euphoria NASA astronauts have reported following trips to space.

The ship will then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere using Rutan’s innovative wing feathering system. Inspired by a badminton shuttlecock, the space ship’s wings will pivot up over the fuselage, enhancing safety and stability during re-entry.

TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN

Jerry Larson, founder and CEO of Colorado-based UP Aerospace, says his company has already delivered payloads to space for NASA and the Department of Defense using vertical-launch rockets at the New Mexico spaceport.

Several things attracted UP to Spaceport America, Larson says. The fact that it was built from the ground up to facilitate private spaceflight gives it an advantage in design and efficiency, Larson says. In addition, the restricted airspace and the extremely low population density in the area — not to mention an average of 340 sunny days per year — brings additional peace of mind and value.

Larson praised former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for having the vision and determination to back the spaceport.

Some in Kern County have suggested that California could have done more to develop a launch site in Mojave or elsewhere. Witt doesn’t discount Mojave’s potential in that regard, but notes that research and development have long been Mojave’s strong suit.

“That is certainly our historic strength in aviation,” Witt says. “I’ve never viewed New Mexico as competition.”

On the contrary, the two facilities may be opposite sides of the same coin, working in cooperation but in distinct functions within the budding industry.

UP Aerospace has another launch scheduled for March 7, Larson says. And he believes his company’s ability to launch a variety of payloads and scientific experiments at lower cost than government entities bodes well for future activity.

“This business is finally starting to catch fire,” he says.

Virgin Galactic, considered the “anchor client” at Spaceport America, has a 20-year lease at the facility. So it, too, is in it for the long haul.

“The value of the Virgin Galactic lease, long-term, is probably $150 (million) to $200 million,” Wilson says. “So we’ll probably get our money back.”

Meanwhile, Wilson says the technical advances will keep on coming. He and many others in the industry foresee rocket planes that will fly from Los Angeles to New York in 30 minutes, while burning less fossil fuel than conventional airliners.

We will see fundamental changes in the way humans get to space and the way humans think about space.

“I’m just convinced this is a very historic moment,” Wilson says. “And Mojave is a big part of it.”

SPACEPORT AMERICA — BY THE NUMBERS7,500
Square miles of restricted airspace

18,000
Total acres of land

340
Average number of sunny days per year

42
Thickness of runway in inches

200,000
Full cost in dollars of a ticket aboard SpaceShipTwo

20,000
Cost in dollars to reserve a seat

Spaceport America is open to the public only through tours provided by the exclusive operator Follow the Sun. For more information visit ftstours.com.

Source: Spaceport America

Republished with permission from The Bakersfield Californian. © 2012 The Bakersfield Californian, all rights reserved.