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  In addition to launching rockets and high-altitude scientific balloons for NASA, NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory is a leader in efforts to safely integrate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs such as the one above) into the National Airspace System.

Photo courtesy Physical Science Laboratory

Destination: Space
Not even the sky's the limit for new aerospace industry

A new space race has begun and New Mexico appears to hold an early lead.

For more than a decade, an alliance of visionaries from New Mexico State University and the aerospace community has promoted southern New Mexico as the ideal location for an inland commercial spaceport. But it took a billionaire British entrepreneur to tell the world that this dream was nearing reality.

Richard Branson, accompanied by Gov. Bill Richardson and state economic development officials, announced in December that his Virgin Galactic space tourism enterprise would be based at New Mexico’s Southwest Regional Spaceport.

The spaceport will be developed on a 27-square-mile site about 45 miles northeast of Las Cruces, near the northern portion of White Sands Missile Range.

“This sends a message that will be heard around the world – that New Mexico is a state that embraces entrepreneurs, adventurers and pioneers,” Richardson said.

Actress Victoria Principal, adding star power to a Santa Fe news conference, said she’s looking forward to being one of Virgin Galactic’s first paying astronauts. She and about 100 other “founders” have bought $200,000 tickets to fly into suborbital space, and thousands more have put down deposits, according to the company.

That was enough to excite headline writers around the world. But the momentum, and the proposed spaceport’s credibility, had been building for more than a year, since New Mexico was selected to host the X Prize Cup space plane competitions.

With the Virgin Galactic announcement, the spaceport now has four customers lined up, said Lonnie Sumpter, executive director of the New Mexico Office of Space Commercialization.

UP Aerospace was expected to be the first to launch from the spaceport site. The company planned to send a scientific payload to an altitude of about 75 miles aboard a 20-foot sounding rocket in the spring of 2006.

The annual X Prize Cup competitions are scheduled to be held at the spaceport beginning in 2007. The 2006 competition will be at the Las Cruces airport.

Virgin Galactic’s passenger flights are expected to launch from Mojave, Calif., until the Southwest Regional Spaceport is ready for its operations, perhaps in late 2009.

Starchaser Industries, a British company, has said it will build a rocket assembly facility in New Mexico and launch vehicles from the spaceport.

In addition, the newly formed Rocket Racing League plans to locate its headquarters and research division in Las Cruces.

A new industry, a new market

While the media buzz has focused on personal spaceflight, this new space age is about more than taking people for rides on rocket planes. Those involved agree the impact on the regional economy, and the potential for New Mexico State University, could be far-reaching.

A business plan prepared by the NMSU College of Business for the state Economic Development Department predicts that the overall economic impact of spaceport operations could be about $1 billion over the first five years and that more than 2,800 jobs could be created in that same period of time.

The first International Symposium on Personal Spaceflight, sponsored by NMSU and the X Prize Foundation as part of the Countdown to the X Prize Cup events in October 2005, delved into topics ranging from the technical developments needed to achieve safe routine space flight to the new business opportunities that will open with the development of personal and commercial space flight.

The symposium, an annual event in conjunction with the X Prize Cup competitions, “is very much about helping to create the market for this new industry, and getting the general public to recognize that the personal spaceflight era is here, it’s under development, and they can be a part of it in many different roles,” said Bill Gaubatz, executive vice president of the X Prize Foundation and co-chair of the symposium.

It’s also about preparing students for 21st century careers, said Patricia Hynes, director of NMSU’s Space Grant Consortium and Gaubatz’s co-chair for the symposium. “This is in keeping with expanding the educational agenda of the X Prize Foundation, to educate the general public and to get students involved, at the K-12 level as well as in higher education,” Hynes said.

The first symposium drew more than 300 scientists, economic development leaders, journalists and others from New Mexico and around the world. An X Prize Expo at the Las Cruces airport, featuring displays and demonstrations of rocket hardware, attracted 20,000 people.

The next symposium, scheduled for Oct. 21, will feature an expanded program and will take place at the airport along with the X Prize competitions, Hynes said.

Aerospace engineering programs grow

As the spaceport and the X Prize Cup draw aerospace entrepreneurs to southern New Mexico, demand for aerospace engineering programs at New Mexico State University continues to grow.

NMSU’s new Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering program expects to graduate its first class of students in May 2008 and plans are being developed to add master’s and doctoral programs. To accommodate the growth, the Mechanical Engineering Department is expected to become the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.

Major aerospace companies such as Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon have all expressed interest in degree programs in aerospace engineering at NMSU. With such a program in place, other industries may want to move to southern New Mexico, said Steven Castillo, dean of the College of Engineering, and Tom Burton, academic head of the Mechanical Engineering Department.

Larger industries would be able to hire students with degrees in aerospace engineering, smaller to midsized companies would be able to hire students as part-time employees and graduate programs would be available to employees in companies of any size. The Ph.D. program would enhance research in the aerospace arena.

Castillo and Burton say the long-term goal is to develop an aerospace engineering program with about 150 undergraduates, 15 to 20 students pursuing master’s degrees, and an equal number of Ph.D. students.

“I think the outcome will be a program that provides wonderful opportunities for students in New Mexico and contributes substantially to economic development through education and research,” Burton said.

Six decades of aerospace experience

When the first space race was launched at White Sands Missile Range, NMSU was there. The university’s Physical Science Laboratory, established to support the testing of captured German V-2 rockets at the end of World War II, has been engaged in aerospace developments ever since.

Working with customers such as NASA and the Department of Defense, PSL has developed extensive expertise in launching rockets and high-altitude scientific balloons, in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), telemetry, payload design, systems design and related technologies. With that history, it was natural that government and industry would seek PSL’s expertise in planning for a commercial spaceport.

“The whole business of developing a spaceport got started back in the early 1990s with the creation of the Southwest Regional Space Task Force,” said PSL’s Bill Gutman, who has played a hands-on role since the beginning.

The task force, a group of advocates from the university, industry and NASA’s White Sands Test Facility, lobbied the state Legislature to establish the New Mexico Office of Space Commercialization and the Spaceport Commission.

The plans developed in fits and starts over the next several years as federal budget priorities shifted. With grants from the Air Force and NASA, a succession of studies, one led by PSL, looked at the feasibility of an inland spaceport.

“The studies looked into the kinds of vehicles that were being developed, the facility and operational requirements for flying them,” Gutman said. “A place a little west of White Sands Missile Range turned out to be the best location.”

A variety of factors contributed to that conclusion – the site’s elevation, favorable approaches to different orbits, the low population density and a large nearby area of restricted airspace among them.

The X Prize Foundation’s Gaubatz was working on Lockheed Martin’s Delta Clipper project at the time. Backed by the Department of Defense, and later NASA, this was an effort to design, build and demonstrate a single-stage-to-orbit, reusable launch vehicle.

Southern New Mexico – initially, White Sands Missile Range – was selected as the launch site. But ultimately, funding for the program was halted before a full-scale version of the Delta Clipper could be developed.

“So I worked with the Office of Space Commercialization to develop an alternative business strategy that looked at more commercial and public involvement,” Gaubatz said. “The concept was to make this an aircraft-like operation – as opposed to the space shuttle, which takes months to prepare for a flight, getting it down to hours and minutes as commercial aircraft and military aircraft do.”

The challenge, of course, was finding the private funding. Gaubatz got involved with the X Prize Foundation and the X Prize Cup competition, which offers large cash prizes to stimulate the development of commercial space vehicles.

He led a committee for the X Prize Foundation to select a spaceport to host the X Prize Cup. Competitors were Florida, Oklahoma and California.

“New Mexico truly was a hands-down winner, in terms of quality and thoroughness and also the commitment that the state and the governor had made to the X Prize Cup and the development of the spaceport,” Gaubatz said.

Besides opening the space frontier, commercial spaceflight also will revolutionize point-to-point travel in the future, Gaubatz said. As spaceports and suborbital flight capabilities develop, he said, “no spaceport in the world will be more than 40 minutes away from another, so travel time gets reduced drastically.”

Spaceportals will become hubs for industry and commerce, meetings and conferences.

“Is it going to happen tomorrow or the day after?” he said. “No, but I think it’s going to happen sooner than people expect.”

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