Late next March, a 21-foot-tall SpaceLoft XL rocket will blast off from New Mexico’s Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham carrying seven experimental and commercial payloads on a suborbital flight. Plans call for two additional launches in 2006, a dozen in 2007, and as many as 30 in 2008.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced the plan September 7, saying he believes these flights will make the spaceport “the most significant commercial space facility in the country.”
“New Mexico has an aggressive and innovative plan,” says Eric Knight, CEO of UP Aerospace, Inc., the Connecticut-based company supplying launch services for the venture.
Estimates of the revenue from the events top $500 million a year, with some $20 million in taxes pouring into state coffers. “In 1947, the first rocket to reach space was launched from New Mexico, so we are proud to be continuing our legacy of leadership in space exploration, and the added bonus is that it has huge economic potential for the state,” said Rick Homans, New Mexico’s Economic Development Department Secretary, at the September press conference. “This is a tremendous victory for us all.”
“They saw the X Prize Cup as a great opportunity,” says Knight. “They’ve wanted to put a spaceport there for over 10 years now, but they’ve never had a partner. If you’re not flying things into space, you don’t have a spaceport,” he tells Astronomy. “This will be our permanent home for space flight.”
UP Aerospace’s most powerful rocket, called SpaceLoft XL, can haul a 110-pound (50 kilogram) payload on a 100-mile-high (161 kilometers) suborbital arc. Knight says the company’s innovations bring space within the reach of modest educational grants, such as those from the U.S. Air Force’s National Aerospace Leadership Initiative (NALI) and NASA’s Space Grant program.
In fact, some of the experiments to be lofted March 2006 originated with high-school students. “The phone is ringing off the hook,” says Knight. “We’re allowing students to envision much grander things — practical, real science in space.”
The flights also allow satellite subsystems to be tested affordably prior to being integrated. “It’s a low-cost test bed for the aerospace industry,” Knight says.
The New Mexico spaceport lies about 40 miles from Las Cruces. Next year’s flight, along with ongoing work to complete an environmental impact statement, will pave the way for a spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration. The facility is to be built mostly on state-owned land.