When Columbus embarked on his westward explorations over 500 years ago, there were many who thought him mad. When the Wright brothers took their flying machine to the beaches of North Carolina, few understood the significance of their efforts. When President John F. Kennedy boldly promised that men would go to the moon, many shook their heads in wonder, incapable of imagining the purpose of such a grand adventure. Yet time has proven again and again that it is the people of vision, the ones who aren’t afraid to take a risk, that make history. In that same spirit, today’s adventurers are setting their sights on commercial space, and they’re building the spaceships – and the spaceport – to get there.
Traditionally, space travel has been the exclusive realm of governmental agencies with substantial financial resources. All that has changed since renowned aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan and his crew at Scaled Composites with the vision of Paul Allen claimed the $10 million Ansari XPrize by flying a human to space twice in two weeks aboard a privately funded rocket ship. SpaceShipOne had proven that a privately built ship could fly to space and back – repeatedly – at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. This accomplishment attracted the attention of billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson of Virgin fame, who quickly formed a partnership with Rutan’s group to build a larger, improved design capable of transporting participants and payloads to space. Currently, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites are far along in the testing of SpaceShipTwo and its mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo.
As spaceship development plans got underway, Virgin Galactic needed a partner to share the vision for commercial space and capable of building a spaceport for the commercial space industry. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson entered into an agreement in late 2005 with Branson’s company to build the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport with Virgin Galactic locating its world headquarters in New Mexico. Along the way, Spaceport America has challenged traditional paradigms for spaceflight while bringing much-needed educational opportunities and economic investment to the state of New Mexico.
MORE THAN SPACE TOURISM
Touted as the world’s first spaceline, Virgin Galactic will be focused on offering affordable sub-orbital space tourism, but the company’s business model also includes the goal of carrying commercial payloads and experiments into space. Branson has stated his company will be able to put commercial satellites into orbit for a fraction of the present costs. Proving the viability of the commercialization of space, Virgin Galactic is already a successful space business based on having collected deposits from over 300 private spaceflight participants at $200,000 each and receiving $280 million from Abu Dhabi-based partner Aabar Investments in exchange for a third of the company. In addition, Aabar committed to providing an additional $110 million towards the development of satellite launch capability. The satellite launch development will transform how satellites are put in orbit and how space is used. This will lead to an industrialization of space due to the lower and more frequent access to space.
THE BIRTHPLACE OF SPACE, AGAIN
Although the spaceport project is certainly innovative, it is hardly unprecedented. New Mexico has a long history of rocketry and spaceflight-related development: from atomic weapons development at White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base, and Los Alamos National Laboratories to pioneering liquid-fueled rocketry experiments by Robert Goddard and Wernher Von Braun; from the “prespace” research into the effects of high-G forces and high altitude on the human body by Holloman’s Col. John Stapp and Capt. Joe Kittinger to the training of “HAM,” the first chimpanzee in space, at Holloman Aero Medical laboratory, no other state can rightly claim as long a heritage of trailblazing when it comes to space.
It is only fitting, then, that New Mexico has been able to reiterate its visionary commitment to leadership in space with Spaceport America.
For starters, its terminal and hangar facility pushes the envelope for both design and energy efficiency. Designed by acclaimed architects URS Corporation & Foster + Partners, the complex will attain the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Gold rating, setting the standard for environmentally sound design for similar structures in the future. The low-lying, 110,152-square-foot building consists of three basic “zones.” The Western Zone will support the administrative facilities for Virgin Galactic and the NMSA. The Central Zone contains the hangar to house the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo vehicles. The Eastern Zone will be the principal operational area, with mission control, training facilities, a departure lounge, revival space, spacesuit dressing rooms and celebration areas. The hangar will use the adjacent berms of natural earth as a thermal mass for more efficient passive heating and cooling, and air into the building will be pre-conditioned naturally via a series of “earth tubes” buried in the berms. The berms will render the infrastructure nearly invisible to the casual observer from the West, with hardly any impact on view, an important consideration given that the spaceport lies merely one mile from the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail.
Finally, Spaceport America will leverage the abundant New Mexico sun through the extensive use of natural lighting throughout the interiors, as well as via solar thermal panels incorporated into the hangar roof to charge a thermal store, further reducing energy consumption. Through its ecologic and cultural sensitivity, the facility will be the first spaceport infrastructure built in history to consider more than just shooting for the stars.
Not everyone appreciates the historical events unfolding in the desert of Southern New Mexico, but the people that are working to build Spaceport America understand the situation perfectly, and they are making history daily. As writer John W. Gardner put it, “History never looks like history when you are living through it.”
Aaron Prescott is Chief of Staff to the executive director of Spaceport America. For more information visit www.spaceportamerica.com.