Spaceport New Mexico and the X Prize Cup
There will, naturally, be hurdles to overcome, especially in the next two to five years. We are, after all, talking about an industry that is about as cutting edge and high risk as you can get. All of these hurdles have the potential to nip the X Prize Cup, not to mention the spaceport itself, in the bud.
The largest of these hurdles is not technical but legislative. Five years ago when private spaceflight advocates and lobbyists approached Congress about a legal structure for flying average citizens in space, they were laughed out of the building. Congress could not be convinced that the need for a regulatory structure was now, not in the distant future. The press surrounding the SpaceShipOne flights changed all that in a hurry, and last December Congress passed HR 5382, the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which establishes the process for private citizens to fly on spacecraft launched from the US. The act is not perfect, but it is a solid beginning, and aerospace companies at least now know where to go for licensing.
In terms of the Cup there is also the problem of foreign teams such as The da Vinci Project in Canada and Starchaser in England. These teams face formidable challenges in bringing their spacecraft to the United States, not the least of which are the draconian U.S. import/export regulations regarding missile technology, which have become even stricter after 9/11. A spacecraft is, unfortunately, still considered by the government as a missile, even if it comes equipped with padded leather seats and windows.
Another hurdle is sponsorship, good old-fashioned advertising dollars. Sponsorship is an essential part of the X Prize Cup marketing plan, and has been proven in similar models like the airshow at Oshkosh and even Nascar auto racing. However, private spaceflight is a very new concept, and despite the success of SpaceShipOne it is mostly an untested one. Many companies are unwilling to break the “business as usual” mode, at least until they see someone else doing it. Companies are beginning to see the potential, however. Diamandis has already confirmed major, multi-year financial sponsorship from St. Louis-based International Fuel Technology, a company that produces high-performance non-hydrocarbon fuel additives that reduce emissions. Other agreements are in the works.
There is also the question of logistics. This fall’s Countdown to the X Prize Cup will need to be held at several locations, since the infrastructure at Upham does not yet exist. Knowing the way construction projects of this magnitude inevitably go, it’s likely that the Cup will be held at White Sands Missile Range for the next few years. This hurdle is one of the smaller ones however, since WSMR has been cooperative from the start. “White Sands Missile Range has a long-standing agreement with the State of New Mexico and we are proud to continue that partnership,” says Brigadier General Robert J. Reese.
So yes, there are obstacles, and not all the regulatory and financial paperwork has yet been signed on the dotted line. But no single obstacle to either the X Prize Cup or the Southwest Regional Spaceport is so large that it cannot be overcome, given time and determination. And Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation, the members of the New Mexico Space Commission and Gov. Richardson all clearly have the determination to make this happen.
If you build it…
The concept of building a private spaceport in New Mexico, when there is currently only one commercial spaceflight company with a proven ship and another seven at most with solid financing and real hardware, may seem presumptuous to some. Again, a look back at the early airline industry is in order. In the 1920’s, before Lindbergh’s flight, airplanes were fascinating to the public, and “barnstormers” provided entertainment in communities all across the U.S. However, there were few airports, and most people thought that airplanes would never amount to more than a curiosity. A few communities had the foresight to realize there was more to it than that, or could be, and they financed the building of local airports even though there were no customers. Ten years later, those communities were thriving on the influx of new jobs and cash, reaping the rewards of their foresight, while the rest of the U.S. was scrambling to catch up. The concept of a New Mexico spaceport is closer to being preemptive rather than presumptious.
In January Gov. Richardson announced the appointment of a new director of the Office for Space Commercialization, Richard Kestner. Kestner took over the position on February 1, the same day the X Prize Foundation received the signed contract confirming New Mexico as the host of the X Prize Cup. Kestner’s credentials are impeccable: he has spent the last 20 years working for White Sands Missile Range as both a project engineer and marketing specialist. He was the WSMR lead for the agreement to host the first X Prize Cups there, and he was on site in Mojave when SpaceShipOne made it into space. “Rich Kestner has the passion and drive to take New Mexico to the next level—right into space,” says Secretary Homans.
Kestner brings with him not only managerial credentials but also an unbridled enthusiasm for manned spaceflight. “I’m one of those guys who was sitting on the living room floor, watching the Moon landing on a little black-and-white set,” Kestner told me. “I still remember how exciting that was, not just for me but for everybody.” When Richardson announced Kestner’s appointment, Kestner said, “My life’s dream is to assist in creating a viable commercial space exploration industry.” Kestner’s passion for space travel has been shaped by more than just his memory of the Moon landing; when the space shuttle first landed in New Mexico in 1982, Kestner was the civilian mayor of White Sands, and considers himself lucky to have been present for the landing, and for the opportunity to talk to the astronauts.
“I consider it a calling, not a job,” Kestner says of his recent appointment as head of the Office for Space Commercialization. “I feel really fortunate, and I feel that New Mexico is really fortunate, we are now in the unique position of being at the epicenter of 21st century spaceflight.” Kestner also had high praise for the team out of the X Prize Foundation. “Diamandis is infectious,” Kestner says. “A few minutes with him and you end up sharing his vision, even if you weren’t already enthusiastic about spaceflight. All the folks [at the X Prize Foundation] are wonderful, especially Bill Gaubatz.” Gaubatz was the program manager for the McDonnell Douglas DC-X, or Delta Clipper, which launched from White Sands. Now he is the vice president of the X Prize Foundation, and will be the X Prize Cup manager.
Though Kestner has high praise for NASA and all they’ve accomplished, he gets the most enthusiastic when he is discussing private spaceflight, which he acknowledges is a “slightly different” direction from the NASA model. “The flight of SpaceShipOne represented a turning point in the public’s perception of space travel,” Kestner says. He feels that the basic paradigm has shifted, and you can sense his excitement about being at the cutting edge of that shift.
So will building a new spaceport in southern New Mexico really tempt aerospace companies, and their jobs, into relocating? The short answer is that it already has. This January, Steve Bennett, Managing Director of British aerospace firm Starchaser, announced that a new subsidiary, Starchaser Inc., will be based in Las Cruces. The new US branch of the company will concentrate on booster development. Starchaser Inc. may be small compared to the big companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but major companies are poised to follow Starchaser’s lead.
The Office for Space Commercialization is already in negotiations with Lockheed Martin, and has provided them with a detailed “Statement of Qualification” at their request, delineating the potential of the planned spaceport. Steven Sasso, Lockheed Martin’s business development manager, called the New Mexico proposal “number one, head and shoulders above the rest,” which included proposals from 15 other states.
One is tempted to say that for the state of New Mexico, and for the aerospace firms and commercial spaceflight teams that go there either to compete in the X Prize Cup or to relocate, the sky is the limit. But the 21st century has arrived, and we need a new cliché, since the “sky” is no longer any limit at all.