Dave Unwin examines the world’s first purpose built commercial spaceport.
The juxtaposition of time and technology could scarcely be more profound. Nestling, half-hidden in the ancient desert of New Mexico is one of the most modern and exciting facilities in the world – Spaceport America.
Built and owned by the State of New Mexico, and administered by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA), this is the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, and will be the centre of operations for Virgin Galactic when it begins commercial flights next year. Virgin Galactic chose New Mexico because the state offers several significant advantages for launching and recovering spacecraft.
The weather is mild, dry and predictable all year round, and the spaceport offers practically permanent VFR conditions. Because the spaceport is sited in a remote desert location the population density is low, and there is plenty of empty public land surrounding the site. As a consequence, the land was (relatively) cheap to buy, and there is little risk of encroachment.
The 18,000-acre site features a single concrete runway orientated north/south, and is essentially the same as those installed at any major modern airport – being 10,006ft (3,050m) long, 200ft (61m) wide and 3.3ft (1m) thick. However, the airspace above it is far from typical. Spaceport America is located adjacent to the famous White Sands Missile Range restricted area, and has access to its airspace. Commercial and private air traffic is permanently diverted around the range, and as the spaceport is not open to either GA or commercial traffic it is perfect for space flight and aerospace related R&D work.
The synergy between the State of New Mexico and Virgin Galactic is interesting. When record-breaking aircraft designer Burt Rutan, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Scaled Composites won the Ansari X-Prize for developing a re-usable manned spacecraft it caught the imagination of entrepreneur and self-confessed ‘rocket-plane nut’ Sir Richard Branson. Sir Richard’s Virgin Group created the first ‘spaceline’ – Virgin Galactic – and entered into a partnership with Scaled Composites to build a larger, commercial spaceship and its launch vehicle. With multiple markets identified, (as well as space tourism, Virgin Galactic will also offer the ability to carry commercial payloads and experiments into space) bookings and investment flooding in and work on the larger vehicles proceeding, it was clear that Virgin Galactic needed a base. Consequently in 2005 Sir Richard and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed a Memorandum of Agreement – New Mexico would construct the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport and Virgin Galactic would locate its world headquarters there.
Having identified a suitable site (an old cattle ranch near the White Sands Missile Range) and set a budget of $209 million, the spaceport’s developers set about procuring the necessary capital. New Mexico’s general fund supplied $140 million, while the remainder was generated as the result of tax referendums held and passed by public vote in Dona Ana and Sierra Counties. The spaceport has the potential to bring much needed jobs and investment to the area – a fact that the citizens of New Mexico were clearly cognisant of. Indeed, one of the reasons that the referendum that proposed raising taxes to pay for the spaceport passed was that 25% of the revenue generated by the spaceport will go directly to improving local educational facilities specifically in the fields of engineering, science and technology.
Space, which was previously the preserve of governments, is on the cusp of being big business. Virgin Galactic has already collected deposits from almost 400 private space flight participants at $200,000 each (that’s $80 million in deposits) and has received $280 million from Abu Dhabi-based partner Aabar Investments in exchange for a third of the company. Consequently, although several other space-related businesses are based at Spaceport America, such as UP Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace, the anchor tenant is Virgin Galactic. VG has signed a 20-year lease with the NMSA, and the value of that lease is between $150 million and $200 million.
The runway is already finished and the terminal and hangar facility (THF) is expected to be completed this year. As you’d expect, the design, materials and construction techniques are every bit as advanced as the spacecraft that will operate from here. Very much a joint transatlantic venture, it has been created by two famous firms of architects – the American URS Corporation and the UK’s Foster & Partners. Designed to use local materials wherever possible, the innovative THF is at the cutting edge of construction technology. When completed, it will meet all the requirements necessary to be awarded the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Engineering Design) Gold rating. In fact, the THF is intended to set the standard for similar environmentally sound structures in the future. For example, air that flows into the building is ‘pre-conditioned’ naturally via a series of ‘earth tubes’ that are buried in adjacent berms of natural earth. These berms are also used as a ‘thermal mass’ for more efficient passive heating and cooling. Needless to say, Spaceport America also makes good use of the sun as the building’s interior is lit naturally wherever possible, which also helps to reduce energy consumption.
The 110,043 sq ft (10,223m2) building has a very low profile to ensure it blends into the local terrain. Indeed, it is scarcely visible from the west. This is an important and commendable design feature, bearing in mind that the famous El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail is actually on the property. The THF comprises three zones – Western, Eastern and Central. The Eastern Zone will be the main operational area, and houses mission control and the various training facilities. The space suit dressing rooms, departure lounge and celebration areas are also located here. The Western Zone contains Virgin Galactic’s administrative facilities and a 4,004 sq ft (372m2) visitors’ section, while the Central Zone is the hangar for the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. With more than 400 seats already booked, these machines will soon be offering regular trips into space aboard the world’s first spaceline. However, although Virgin Galactic is focused on initially providing affordable sub-orbital space tourism, the company’s business model also includes carrying commercial payloads and experiments into space for a fraction of the present costs.
However, although Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant and its spacecraft take off and land using the runway, Spaceport America also has a vertical launch complex. A significant advantage for vertically launched rockets is that Spaceport America is not only on a relatively southern latitude but is almost a mile above sea level. Consequently less fuel is required to reach orbit. Furthermore, the booster stages have the option of gliding back down and landing on the runway. This should greatly reduce turn-round times, an important consideration for space-related businesses. And business is what Spaceport America is all about. As the Shuttle fleet is about to retire, both NASA and the United States Air Force are actively seeking to reduce launch costs. It currently costs more than $20,000 to get a kilogram of payload into a low-Earth orbit, a figure NASA wants to reduce by 90%. Consequently, New Mexico is poised to reap the benefits by offering both vertical and horizontal launch capabilities. Christine Anderson, Executive Director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority told Airports International “Spaceport America is positioned to make an impressive debut in the emerging commercial space industry. We are creating a new and low-cost way to get to space thanks in part to our unique partnership with White Sands Missile Range, sharing over 7,500 square miles of restricted airspace.” With the introduction of the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, the commercialisation of space becomes truly viable. The dedicated infrastructure should lead to more reliable, faster and less expensive launches, which will in turn generate more business. In fact, several companies have already launched from the spaceport. UP Aerospace, Inc, was the first to launch a commercial payload from here in September 2006, and has since conducted multiple launches.
Other companies that have arranged for commercial launches from Spaceport America include Microgravity Enterprises, Celestis, Armadillo Aerospace, Lockheed Martin Aerospace and MOOG FTS Aerospace.
Apart from access to the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico is also home to Kirtland and Holloman Air Force Bases, the Los Alamos and Sandia laboratories and several solar and astronomy observatories, including the Very Large Array. In fact the state has a long history of being at the cutting edge of technology, particularly rocketry and nuclear physics, and the myriad hi-tech advantages it offers are obvious. For New Mexico and Spaceport America, it appears that even the sky is no longer the limit!
A Step Closer
EARLY ON Wednesday May 4, 2011, in the skies above Mojave Air and Spaceport CA, SpaceShipTwo (SS2), the world’s first commercial spaceship, demonstrated its unique re-entry ‘feather’ configuration for the first time.
This test flight, the third in less than two weeks, marks another major milestone on the path to powered test flights and commercial operations.
SS2, named VSS Enterprise, has now flown solo seven times since its public roll-out in December 2009 and since the completion of its ground and captive -carry test programme.
This latest flight saw a 06:43 (local) runway take-off for VSS Enterprise, attached to its WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft, VMS Eve. At the controls of the of the spaceship were Scaled Composites’ test pilots Pete Siebold and Clint Nichols, whilst Mark Stucky, Brian Maisler and Brandon Inks crewed the purpose-built, all-composite, twin-fuselage WK2.
After a 45-minute climb to the desired altitude of 51,500ft (15,700m), SS2 was released cleanly from VMS Eve and established a stable glide profile before deploying, for the first time, its re-entry or ‘feathered’ configuration by rotating the tail section of the vehicle upwards to a 65º angle to the fuselage. It remained in this configuration with the vehicle’s body at a level pitch for approximately 1 minute and 15 seconds whilst descending, almost vertically, at around 15,500ft (4,725m) per minute, slowed by the powerful shuttlecock-like drag created by the raised tail section. At around 33,500ft (10,200m) the pilots reconfigured the spaceship to its normal glide mode and executed a smooth runway touch down, approximately 11 minutes and 5 seconds after its release from VMS Eve.
All objectives for the flight were met and detailed flight data is now being analysed by the engineers at Scaled Composites, designers and builders of Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital spacecraft.
George Whitesides, CEO and President of Virgin Galactic, said: “This morning’s spectacular flight by VSS Enterprise was its third in 12 days, reinforcing the fast turnaround and frequent flight-rate potential of Virgin Galactic’s new vehicles. We have also shown this morning that the unique feathering re-entry mechanism, probably the single most important safety innovation within the whole system, works perfectly. This is yet another important milestone successfully passed for Virgin Galactic, and brings us ever closer to the start of commercial operations. Credit is due to the whole Scaled team, whose meticulous planning and great skill are changing the course of history.”
Pete Siebold, who along with Clint Nichols piloted the spaceship added: “In all test flight programmes, after the training, planning and rehearsing, there comes the moment when you have to go up there and fly it for real. This morning’s flight was a test pilot’s dream. The spaceship is a joy to fly and the feathered descent portion added a new, unusual but wonderful dynamic to the ride. The fact that it all went to plan, that there were no surprises and that we brought VSS Enterprise back to Mojave safe and sound, is a great testament to the whole team.”
Perhaps the most innovative safety feature employed by SpaceshipOne and now SpaceShipTwo is the unique way it returns into the dense atmosphere from the vacuum of space. This part of space flight has always been considered as one of the most technically challenging and dangerous and Burt Rutan was determined to find a failsafe solution which remained true to Scaled Composite’s philosophy of safety through simplicity. His inspiration for what is known as the feathered re-entry was the humble shuttlecock, which like SpaceShipTwo relies on aerodynamic design and laws of physics to control speed and attitude.
Once out of the atmosphere the entire tail structure of the spaceship can be rotated upwards to about 65º. The feathered configuration allows an automatic control of attitude with the fuselage parallel to the horizon. This creates very high drag as the spacecraft descends through the upper regions of the atmosphere. The feather configuration is also highly stable, effectively giving the pilot a hands-free re-entry capability, something that has not been possible on spacecraft before, without resorting to computer controlled fly-by-wire systems. The combination of high drag and low weight (due to the very light materials used to construct the vehicle) mean that the skin temperature during re-entry stays very low compared to previous manned spacecraft and thermal protection systems such as heat shields or tiles are not needed. During a full sub-orbital spaceflight, at around 70,000ft (21,330m) following re-entry, the feather lowers to its original configuration and the spaceship becomes a glider for the flight back to the spaceport runway.