A Brief History of Spaceport America

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

UPDATED: 8/20/19, 12:08 p.m. PDT

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Sometime in 2020, if all goes according to plan, British billionaire Richard Branson will board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity at Spaceport America in New Mexico and take the first commercial suborbital space flight in history.

The landmark flight, which Virgin has been trying to conduct for 15 years, will also be the culmination of a 30-year effort by New Mexico to become a commercial space power.

That effort has seen the expenditure of more than $225 million just on developing Spaceport America. While there have numerous sounding rocket launches from the desert facility, the ultimate goal of launching humans on space tourism flights has remained elusive so far.

As Virgin Galactic prepares to complete its flight test program at Spaceport America this fall, it seems like a good time to look at the longh, circuitious path that New Mexico has taken to reach this point. There have been plenty of twists, turns and bumps along the road — and even more hype.

Southwest Regional Spaceport

Sounding Rockets, Capsule Recovery & VT/VL Systems

Southwest Regional Spaceport plans, 2007 (Credit: Innovarium Ventures and New Mexico Space Grant)

1989: The FAA grants a license for the first commercial sounding rocket launch from White Sands Missile Range (WSMR).

March 1990: The initial concept for the Southwest Regional Spaceport is proposed. Technical and marketing studies follow that focus on using the state’s vast deserts to launch sounding rockets and to recover capsules from space.

1991: McDonnell Douglas begins construction of the DC-X, a one-third scale prototype of a reusable, single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle (STTO) designed to land and takeoff vertically.  The DC-X would be followed by the DC-Y, a pre-production variant, and finally by the full-scaled production vehicle named DC-1.

The program, which is funded by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), will conduct tests at WSMR.

1992: Southwest Space Task Force is formed. From about 25 sites considered, the task force eventually focuses on a 27-square mile tract of state-owned land near Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences that will become Spaceport America.

Former NASA astronaut Pete Conrad, who is working on the DC-X program, made a convincing argument that the site would be a perfect location for flights of the DC-Y and DC-1 follow-on vehicles.

Aug. 18, 1993: The DC-X first flies for the first time at WSMR. Two additional flights follow on Sept. 11 and Sept. 30. Funding runs out as the SDIO program winds down.

1994: The New Mexico Office for Space Commercialization (NMOSC) is created.

The late great, never flown X-33 technology demonstrator.

1994: NASA initiates the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) program, which includes the development of the X-33 single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) experimental vehicle.

June 1994 – July 1995: Five DC-X flights are conducted in New Mexico with funding from NASA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

McDonnell Douglas DC-XA (Credit: NASA)

1995: NASA reluctantly takes over the program and makes a series of upgrades the DC-X. The vehicle is renamed the DC-XA and eventually Clipper Advanced/Clipper Graham after U.S. Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, who helped create the program. Graham passes away on Dec. 31, 1995.

July 2, 1996: NASA awards a contract to Lockheed Martin to build the X-33 experimental vehicle. The company plans to build a full-scale follow-on vehicle it calls VentureStar.

July 7, 1996: On its fourth flight, DC-XA is severely damaged in a fire after one of its landing struts fails to extend. The vehicle is too severely damaged to be rebuilt. NASA declines to build another vehicle in order to focus on the X-33 program.

1998-2001: New Mexico pursues but loses bid to host flight tests of NASA’s X-33 SSTO experimental vehicle from WSMR.

Southwest Regional Spaceport also bids on right to fly Lockheed’s VentureStar. The SSTO would fly commercial and military missions from the spaceport.

March 1, 2001: NASA cancels the X-33 program due to technical challenges and rising costs. Lockheed Martin abandons VentureStar.

Suborbital Tourism & Sounding Rockets

2003: Rick Homans becomes secretary of Economic Development as a member of Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration. He gains the governor’s support for reviving the spaceport.

May 11, 2004: XPRIZE Foundation announces that New Mexico has won the competition to host the X-Prize Cup , a two-day air and space exposition.

The annual event is designed as a follow-on to the ongoing Ansari X Prize, which is a $10 million competition for the first privately-funded, crewed suborbital vehicle capable of flying above 100 km (62.1 miles) twice within two weeks.

June 21, 2004: Scaled Composites pilot Mike Melvill makes first private suborbital flight by piloting SpaceShipOne above 100 km (62.1 miles) from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

SpaceShipOne lands after its historic spaceflight on June 21, 2004. (Credit: Ian Kluft)

Sept. 27, 2004: Richard Branson announces the launch of Virgin Galactic Airways with plans to fly tourists on suborbital flights in the 2007-08 period. The company will license SpaceShipOne technology developed for the Ansari X Prize by Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Virgin plans to invest £60 million ($108 million) to create a fleet of SpaceShipTwo vehicles and WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. The company plans to fly 3,000 passengers during is first five years with tickets costing £115,000 ($208,000) apiece. SpaceShipTwo vehicles will carry five passengers each.

Sept. 29, 2004: Melvill pilots SpaceShipOne above 100 km (62.1 miles) to complete the first Ansari X Prize flight.

Oct. 4, 2004: Scaled Composites pilot Brian Binnie flies SpaceShipOne above 100 km to claim the $10 million prize.

2005: Negotiations are conducted to lure Virgin Galactic to the Southwest Regional Spaceport. The New Mexico Spaceport Authority is created to oversee development of the facility.

Gov. Bill Richardson and Richard Branson with SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Dec. 14, 2005: Richardson and Branson announce that Virgin Galactic will locate its world headquarters from the spaceport. New Mexico will spend up to $225 million to build the spaceport on 27 square acres of state land near Truth or Consequences.

Completion of the spaceport is predicted for the 2009/2010 time period. Virgin Galactic plans to begin flights from Spaceport America once construction is completed. In the meantime, development and testing will continue to take place in Mojave.

The company predicts it will fly 50,000 passengers during the first decade of operations using five SpaceShipTwo and two WhiteKnightTwo vehicles. Fifteen months earlier, Branson had forecast flying only 3,000 passengers in the first five years of commercial service.

December 30, 2005: A Futron Corporation study commissioned by New Mexico’s government is released. The study projects that in the first five years the spaceport will generate $1 billion in spending with a payroll of $300 million, with employment reaching 2,300 by the fifth year of operation.

The study also predicts that in 2020 the spaceport could be generating in excess of $750 million in total revenues with more than 3,500 jobs in space transportation, manufacturing and tourism-related visitor spending.

Spaceport America

March 1, 2006: Southwest Regional Spaceport is formerly renamed Spaceport America.

2006: New Mexico Legislature approves spaceport funding.

April 4, 2006: Construction begins on a temporary launch facility for suborbital sounding rockets.

An UP Aerospace rocket launched experiments to flight test for NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program from Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Spaceport America)

September 25, 2006: UP Aerospace conducts the first suborbital sounding rocket launch from Spaceport America. The SpaceLoft XL booster fails eight seconds into flight.

October 20–21, 2006: First X-Prize Cup held in Las Cruces.

April 3, 2007: Residents of Dona Ana County approve a quarter-cent tax increase to help fund spaceport construction.

April 28, 2007: UP Aerospace conducts the first successful SpaceLoft XL launch at the spaceport.

Oct. 26-28, 2007: Second and final X-Prize Cup held in Alamogordo.

April 22, 2008: Residents of Sierra County approve a quarter-cent tax increase to help fund spaceport construction.

Oct. 24-25, 2008. X Prize Foundation managed Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge held in Las Cruces.

Nov. 4, 2008: Residents of Otera County reject a local tax increase to help fund spaceport construction.

December 2008: Spaceport America receives launch license from the Federation Aviation Administration.

Dec. 31, 2008: New Mexico announces that Virgin Galactic has signed a 20-year lease to serve as anchor tenant at Spaceport America.

June 18, 2009: Officials hold groundbreaking ceremony for Spaceport America.

February 27, 2010: Gov. Richardson signed the Space Flight Informed Consent Act limiting the rights of passengers and their estates to sue for injuries or deaths except in cases of gross negligence or intentional harm.

Virgin Galactic President George Whitesides, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Richard Branson, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

October 22, 2010: Virgin Galactic and New Mexico officials dedicate the runway at the partially completed Spaceport America. The runway is officially named the Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway.

Branson predicts that commercial space tourism flights will begin in nine to 18 months (July 2011-April 2012).

Oct. 18, 2011: Virgin Galactic and New Mexico officials dedicate the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space at Spaceport America. Branson predicts SpaceShipTwo flight tests occurring in 2012 and commercial flights from Spaceport America in early 2013.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Richard Branson pose in front of SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

November 2012: Virgin Galactic threatens to abandon Spaceport America unless the state extends informed consent liability protections to spacecraft manufacturers and suppliers. The legislation would provide protections to Virgin Galactic’s sister firm, The Spaceship Company, which builds SpaceShipTwo vehicles.

Jan. 15, 2013: Virgin Galactic begins monthly lease payments of about $85,000 at Spaceport America. The amount will later increase substantially in the years ahead.

April 2, 2013: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signs law providing liability protections for Virgin Galactic’s manufacturers and suppliers.

April 29, 2013: SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise makes first powered flight test from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Following the 16-second engine burn, Branson announces an increase in ticket prices from $200,000 to $250,000 and predicts he will fly by Christmas.

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight over Mojave.

Two additional powered flights with engine burns of 20 seconds apiece follow in September 2013 and January 2014. Planned burn times of approximately 1 minute not possible due to excessive engine oscillations and vibrations.

January-October 2014: Modifications are made to SpaceShipTwo to dampen the oscillations and vibrations. Glide flights are conducted to test the modifications.

Oct. 31, 2014: SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise breaks up in flight due to premature deployment of vehicle’s feather during powered ascent. Scaled Composites co-pilot Mike Alsbury is killed in the breakup; pilot Pete Siebold parachutes to safety with serious but survivable injuries.

SpaceShipTwo breaks up after the premature deployment of its feather system. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Branson predicts a second SpaceShipTwo under construction in Mojave will be completed and ready for testing in five to six months. The vehicle, which will be named Unity, does not conduct a glide test until two years later.

Dec. 3, 2016: VSS Unity performs first glide flight in Mojave.

SpaceShipTwo Unity in its first powered flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Dec. 13, 2018: VSS Unity performs first powered flight above 50 miles (80.4 km). A second flight above 50 miles is conducted on Feb. 13, 2018.

2019: Branson’s estimates the Virgin Group has spent $1 to $1.3 billion on Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit. This is 10 times more than the original $108 million estimate for Virgin Galactic in 2004.

Aug. 13, 2019: WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve relocates to Spaceport America from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Interior of the Gateway to Space in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Aug. 15, 2019: Virgin Galactic unveils completed interior of Gateway to Space to the media.

The Future

Fall-Winter 2019 (Planned): SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity will complete three or four suborbital flight tests from Spaceport America.

2020 (Planned): Branson will board SpaceShipTwo’s first commercial suborbital flight to begin regular service.