A wildly ambitious hub for commercial space travel has risen in the desert of southern New Mexico. Despite much progress and impressive competition, Will Grant finds the final frontier still waits
Keeping secrets is easier in lonely places. The Jornada del Muerto in southern New Mexico is such a place. Stretching from Socorro to Las Cruces, the stark desert is mostly rock and wind. There’s no grass, there’s no water — there’s basically no vegetation higher than your knee for the roughly 100-mile swath of desert named by the Spanish conquistadors for its inhospitable character.
But there are secrets out there. Particularly on the east side of the Jornada, about 30 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences. That’s where Spaceport America, the only facility in the world built exclusively for commercial space travel, sits ready to make astronauts out of paying customers. Not surprisingly, building spaceships involves secrets, which makes the Jornada a good place to do business.
“The commercial aspect of the Spaceport is a very sensitive, very proprietary market,” says Dan Hicks, who took over as CEO of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority last fall. “One advantage we have that makes us incredibly lucrative to the industry is our remote location. You don’t have a lot of encroachment from cities or demographics where it would be difficult to keep public eyes off what you’re doing.”
Still, the public is watching. The state of New Mexico has so far spent about $220 million on the facility since its groundbreaking in 2007. At that time, the optimistic prediction for commercial space travel was that private companies — most notably Virgin Galactic, which signed a 20-year lease as an anchor tenant at the Spaceport — would be ferrying people to zero gravity by 2015 or so. That hasn’t happened.
Jeff Foust, a staff writer for SpaceNews, attended both the groundbreaking ceremony and official opening of the Spaceport. Foust earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and speaks with the crisp, rapid vernacular of someone familiar with the industry. The most salient issue confronting the Spaceport, he says, is the misconception about the time frame of events.
“If you look back a decade or so ago, people were expecting the suborbital commercial space flight industry to grow — to take off, so to speak — a lot faster than it actually did,” he says. “As it turns out, this actually is rocket science, and it can be a challenging endeavor. Things can be more difficult than at first anticipated.”
Paying its own bills has been one of the Spaceport’s challenges. It still can’t cover its annual bottom line, but, according to CEO Hicks, that’s not for lack of trying. In 2017, the facility will host three non-aerospace events as part of an effort to involve more civilians in the place, bring in money from outside sources, and generate some tourism. The Spaceport’s main source of income is its tenants. According to Rosa Banuelos, a member of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority business development team, four of the five renters are Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, UP Aerospace, and EXOS Aerospace Systems & Technologies. I ask her about the fifth and tell her I read that Google had been working out there.
“Again, I’ve mentioned four of them,” she says. I push her a little about the other tenant, and she balks. Just another secret, I guess.
No one has so far traveled to space from the Spaceport, though the facility has to date completed 31 horizontal launches and six vertical launches, most involving test flights and unmanned rockets. The facility will see an increase in activity this year as host of what it’s calling the three signature events: an intercollegiate rocketry contest, a drone summit and as the finish line for a 200-mile endurance footrace from El Paso to the Spaceport.
In 2015, the Spaceport opened its doors to public tours on the weekends. Buses shuttle guests from Truth or Consequences to the facility for the “Spaceport Experience.” Through a partnership with Ted Turner Expeditions, the Spaceport last year started offering use of its runway and terminal to jet-setting visitors headed to vacation at one of Turner’s nearby ranches. Foust appreciated these additions to the schedule as Spaceport’s attempt to broaden its sources of revenue but says there’s still pressure to see progress on the aerospace front.
“The state talks about diversifying its customer base, but they’re still really expecting Virgin to show up in the next year or two,” he says. “Virgin Galactic, though, has had its set of delays.”
In 2014, Virgin’s spaceship blew up over southern California after taking off from the Mojave Air & Space Port, a nearby hub for test flights and a site of Virgin’s research and development. That slowed Virgin’s timetable, and the company has since been working mostly out of the Mojave field, though it reportedly intends to return the majority of its operations to the Spaceport. SpaceX has had at least two rockets blow up in what it calls rapid unscheduled disassemblies. Both those rockets were attempting to land on drone barges at sea.
Whenever suborbital commercial space travel finally happens, Spaceport America will almost undoubtedly be its Earth-side dock. No one really knows when that will be, though Spaceport CEO Hicks foresees a significant uptick in activity at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere within the next five years. While other facilities in the U.S., like the Mojave field, send vehicles to space (a total of nine have been licensed to do so by the Federal Aviation Administration), none are as equipped to handle paying customers as would-be astronauts than the Spaceport.
A ticket to space on a Virgin Galactic flight will cost you $250,000. You’ll get a few minutes of zero gravity, a rarefied view of our planet and the title of astronaut, reserved only for those who have been 62 miles above the surface, as compared to the altitude of jetliners, which travel about 5 miles above the surface. So far, more than 700 people have signed up. To Hicks, those 700 future astronauts are just the beginning.
“I think the number of astronauts that the world has — now it’s about 550 — will dramatically increase, and this area in the next five years will be the leader in the world in getting astronauts into space,” he says. “So I think the real market potential going forward in the suborbital world is going to happen right here in southern New Mexico.”