Spaceport America Readies for Suborbital Passenger Service

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 

As the world's first facility built to house commercial space flight operations, the $209 million Spaceport America in southern New Mexico is being scrutinized on every front. From aerospace executives and two separate branches of the FAA to building code officials and the international architecture/design community, countless entities watch intently to see how the historic venture will fare.

Amid the intense examination and stratospheric expectations, Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA), barely bats an eye. "I love unprecedented projects," Anderson says matter-of-factly. "That's what attracted me to it."

After serving as a civilian in the Air Force for 30 years and achieving the equivalent level of a military general, Anderson briefly retired to New Mexico before agreeing to head the state-funded spaceport project already in progress.

"I just couldn't turn it down," explains Anderson, joking that she "flunked" retirement. "This facility supports a brand-new industry. It's not just space travel, it's space travel for commercial passengers," she emphasizes, alluding to the sense of importance that permeates the entire effort.

Located in an undeveloped, desert-like area 55 miles north of Las Cruces, NM, Spaceport America includes vertical and horizontal launch facilities. Having already hosted 14 vertical launches, NMSA staff is systematically preparing for commercial horizontal operations by its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, the British-owned/New Mexico-based company working to become the world's first "spaceline." Virgin's dual-fuselage aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, takes off from a horizontal runway, carrying a six-passenger carbon composite spacecraft to about 50,000 feet for its launch.

Despite initial differences, Anderson predicts that the spaceport will eventually run very much like an airport. Virgin Galactic plans to offer regularly scheduled suborbital flight service to almost anyone buying a $200,000 ticket. (Passengers must pass a medical examination and undergo two to three days of pre-flight training.) In many ways, it will resemble its sister airline, Virgin Atlantic Airways.

From a business model, the spaceport is largely like an airport. NMSA will collect rent and user fees from Virgin Galactic and other aerospace users the same way airport authorities collect rent and landing fees from airlines. According to Anderson, fees for horizontal launches at the spaceport will range from $35,000 to $75,000 per flight, depending on volume. Vertical launch fees vary even more. "Many of those companies are still in the testing phase with their vehicles," explains Anderson.

Like most airports, Spaceport America is also banking on non-aeronautical revenue. An active tourist trade, however, could potentially provide far more income than typical retail and food/beverage airport concessions alone.

Not surprisingly, developing a facility to accommodate the world's first spaceline, and its VIP passengers, included several unusual twists.

Drafting the Team

Just as Virgin Galactic held an international design competition to develop its space vehicle and launch aircraft, NMSA held a similar contest to select a primary engineer to develop its facilities. URS Corp., with the renowned British firm Foster + Partners on board to head the facility design, emerged as the winner - beating out three other semifinalists and many other firms that initially presented qualifications for consideration.

The spaceport project clearly holds a special spot in URS' aviation portfolio, even alongside


Project: Spaceport Terminal/Hangar

Location: Spaceport America, Southern NM

Site Size: 670,000 sq. ft.

Terminal/Hangar Facility: 120,000 sq. ft.

Key Tenant: Virgin Galactic

Other Users: Armadillo Aerospace, Celestis, Lockheed Martin, Microgravity Enterprises, Moog-FTS, UP Aerospace, The X Prize Foundation

Program Development/Prime Engineer: URS

Facility Architect: Foster + Partners

Facility Infrastructure/Surface Engineer: AECOM

Local Eng./Arch. Subcontractors: Dekker/Perich/Sabatini; Molzen-Corbin & Assoc.

Hangar Design: SMPC Architects

Owner's Rep: Gerald Martin Construction Mgt.

Design Review Services: HDR

Prime Facility Contractor: Summit West

Electrical Systems: McDade-Woodcock

Water Utilities, Storage Tank & Booster Pump Station: Smithco

Waste Utilities & Wastewater Treatment Plant: AUI

Fuel Storage Area Construction: FNF New Mexico

Aircraft Rescue & Firefighting Facility Design: Engineering System Solutions

Aircraft Rescue & Firefighting Facility Construction: Bateman-Hall

Archaeological Data Recovery Investigations: Zia Engineering & Environmental Consultants

Technical Systems & Networks: B & D Industries

Fencing & Gates: Valley Fence Company

Internal Roadwork: CMC Construction

Site Guard Station Mgt: FNF New Mexico

Tour Operator: Follow the Sun

Interactive Exhibits/Visitor Center Experience: IDEAS

Airfield Size: 332,000 sq. yards

Runway Dimensions: 200 ft. wide, 10,000 ft. long; 42 inches thick

Apron: 47,000 sq. yards

Runway Design: AECOM

Prime Runway & Apron Contractor: David Montoya Construction

Runway, Taxiway, Apron Quality Control: Western Technologies

Airfield Joint Sealants: D.S. Brown

Runway Dedication: Oct. 2010

larger airport projects at Denver International, San Francisco International and Hong Kong International. Laddie Irion, vice president and director of URS' Air Transportation business line, considers the Spaceport America facility unique, iconic and inspiring. "It definitely got our creative juices flowing," Irion relates.

Designers describe the circular building covered by an undulating roof with bullnose edges as "sinuous."

After leading the engineering/architecture team for more than four years, URS project manager Rick Tietgens, PE, is still struck by the three-story building's unique multi-purpose design. With a 47,000-square-foot hangar/maintenance facility at ground level and the terminal - complete with office space, passenger training facilities and public visitor areas - directly above, architects and engineers had a distinct design challenge on their hands.

"Having fully fueled aircraft housed in the same building with the public terminal element was something the fire marshal and building officials were initially very uncomfortable with," explains Tietgens. "They would have rather seen them in separate buildings."

The facility's anchor tenant, however, was intent on keeping passengers' family and friends as close to the action as safely possible and ensuring ample pubic access to fully capitalize on the inherent thrill associated with space flight. "Virgin had a lot of input in the design," recalls Tietgens. "Fortunately, Foster + Partners had a long-term pre-existing relationship with them and was well acquainted with Virgin's aspirations for the facility."

While Foster designed the facility itself, URS focused on the engineering and worked to convince fire and building officials of the structure's safety. In addition to performing its own code analysis, URS hired a third-party company recommended by the fire marshal to review its findings. "A big part of the process was educating them about the exotic and solid fuels used by Virgin," recalls Tietgens.

The firm also went beyond local and state jurisdictions to involve representatives from the International Code Council. "We had the authors of the codes review it," he adds. "It was a long process to get everyone to agree on the design concept, but in the end, the tenant got everything under one roof, just like they originally envisioned."

Keeping it all within a $30 million budget (increased from $28 million during the design phase) was an ever-present challenge, recalls Tietgens. "We would come up with great, imaginative ideas to fulfill the client's grand vision, and then we'd be brought back to Earth by finances," he recalls. "(NMSA) really held our feet to the fire about the budget."

Change orders from the owner that expanded the overall scope of the work increased the subsequent cost of the building to $35 million. Tietgens considers the resemblance between the near-complete facility and renderings produced five years ago a notable accomplishment.

Off the Beaten Path

The spaceport's remote site, just west of the Army's White Sands Missile Range, provides distinct operational benefits through the shared use of restricted airspace. It also, however, presented considerable challenges while developing the facilities.

Of the estimated $209 million total costs, $35 million was spent on the design and construction of the main terminal/hangar facility. The runway accounted for $29 million more, and the spaceport operations center added another $4 million.

In the early stages, team members had to use off-road vehicles and were occasionally cut off from the project site when rainstorms washed away the dirt access roads. Even after rain, the greenfield site was predominantly brown and dusty.

AECOM lead the civil infrastructure development and provided program management of support contracts and third-party efforts.

Anderson recalls the much-anticipated day permanent power was scheduled to arrive last September. At the tail end of the process, crews encountered a historic relic, and the job had to be put on hold. After three weeks of professional archeological excavation, power crews were finally able to finish their job.

The find was one of 20+ archeological sites unearthed during construction. "It's definitely a mixed bag," Anderson notes. "It's interesting, because we're finding artifacts of Paleo-Indians from 10,000 years ago. But from a construction standpoint, it adds extra time."

The spaceport's site is rife with archeological finds because it is surrounded by sprawling ranches and open expanses protected by the Bureau of Land Management. As such, it was largely undisturbed for centuries.

The El Camino Real, a major trade route from the 1500s that's now a national historic trail, runs along the west side of the spaceport site. "It was how the Spanish travelers came to the New World," relates Tietgens. "Now, it will be where travelers from all over the world begin their journey to space, the new frontier."

Respecting the area's "ancient, reverent landscape" was vital, notes Irion. In addition, however, Virgin Galactic was clear about wanting an ultra-modern terminal/hangar facility.

"We used earth materials already on site to reconcile the two opposing requirements," explains Tietgens. Designers integrated the west side of the building into a berm that gradually builds from ground level to 45 feet - almost two-thirds of the facility's maximum height. "The berm rises and falls, just like the natural landscape around it," he notes.

Passengers will enter the building via a deep channel cut into the landscape, with retaining walls on both sides. The west side of the facility and retaining walls were clad in pre-weathered metal panels to evoke a rustic feel.

In addition to helping the facility blend into its barren surroundings, the berm buffers the low-profile structure from temperature extremes to reduce energy needed for heating and cooling. Additional design measures engineered to exploit westerly winds for natural ventilation and abundant sunlight to reduce electric lighting are expected to garner the facility gold certification in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

In striking contrast to the earthy west side, the 65-foot-tall eastern front is covered by a sleek glass curtain wall that drops sharply to the apron level. Behind the high-tech facade, the east side's restaurant, mission control room and 1,700-square-foot viewing balcony are designed to provide "coveted views" of the apron, runway and landscape.

Caution: Inspiration Ahead

Another unique aspect of Spaceport America is its ancillary function as a tourist spot and educational center - elements that project team members refer to as the "visitor experience." Given the intrinsic interest in space travel, NMSA specified that ample space be devoted to educational displays and interactive exhibits. A 4,000-square-foot public viewing gallery helps satisfy this requirement.

"If you're not one of the lucky few who will actually fly in Virgin Galactic's spacecraft, we still want you to be able to experience the awe and excitement of space travel," explains Anderson.

NMSA selected IDEAS, an "innovation studio" known for its work with Disney, NASCAR, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and other visitor-oriented entities to develop a series of on- and off-site visitor attractions. Two welcome centers will be located near the interstate to encourage and accommodate public interest. Busing tourists in from the centers will help control the visitor flow and help protect the "pristine environment," explains Anderson.

She's particularly passionate about the spaceport's educational potential: "My generation had Kennedy talking about going to the moon. If we don't use this as a motivational mechanism to excite students about math and science, we're not doing our full job."

Kelly Pounds, vice president of learning at IDEAS, reports that much of the company's work will have an educational focus, and it will all begin online. "There will be a robust virtual environment offering games, mobile apps and content so that especially our younger guests will already feel a part of the new space age by the time they come for a visit," Pounds explains.

IDEAS will also provide online options for teachers developing lesson plans, specially designed instructional interactives and a conduit for longer-term collaboration.

The onsite Visitors Center is expected to include hands-on access to space technology and artifacts from recent launches, the opportunity to create a payload and manifest it for flight, interactive and simulation based experiences and a theater. From the Visitors Center, guests will be able to take a guided tour of the spaceport that culminates at the entrance to Virgin Galactic's portion, where they will get an in-depth look at world's first passenger spaceship fleet. "We are designing a learning-enriched, hands-on immersion into what space is going to be about for the next twenty years," explains Bob Allen, IDEAS' chief storytelling officer. "We want a relationship with our guests that lasts generations."

Attendance at the various attractions and exhibits is expected to grow to 200,000 visitors per year, reports Anderson, noting that projections are predicated on attendant marketing support.

Since June, about 1,500 visitors have taken public "hardhat tours" of the spaceport. Offered only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays to prevent interference with ongoing final construction, the three-hour tours cost $59 for adults and $29 for children.


To Space & Beyond

Expectations are literally lofty for Spaceport America as it approaches full operational status. "It's the first structure of its kind in the world," relates Irion. "So it will provide future guidance for the completion of other facilities in the U.S. and internationally."

He considers the two entities to be aerospace pioneers: "They're leading the way, and it's exciting to be part of a project like this."

When Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson dedicated the anchor tenant's portion of the facility last October, he referred to the venture as "one of the most important new industrial sectors of the 21st century."

In true Branson fashion, he rappelled down from the roof through Cirque de Soleil-style acrobats turning circles on the building's side before officially dubbing the facility the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space with the pop of a champagne cork. "We've never wavered in our commitment to the monumental task of pioneering safe, affordable and clean access to space, or to demonstrate that we mean business at each step along the way," Branson stressed.

To date, nearly 500 people from around the globe have submitted deposits for a two-hour flight, complete with outbound carriage at three times the speed of sound and the opportunity for an out-of-seat, zero-gravity experience inside the cabin of SpaceShipTwo. The 524th booking will likely elicit a companywide celebration, as company officials periodically remind employees that to date, only 523 people have ever been to space.

Branson and his two children are scheduled to take the spaceline's first commercial flight.

Anderson is unabashedly optimistic about the spaceport's future: "We're not even officially open for business, and we've already been named one of the top destinations to visit in 2012 by the New York Times and Travel Channel."

From a financial standpoint, she looks forward to Virgin Galactic beginning rent payments in June or July. Looking further ahead, she anticipates serving additional aerospace tenants and customers: "We can accommodate more - for both vertical and horizontal launches."

Anderson defers to NMSA's key tenant regarding the big question: exactly when Virgin Galactic will begin service. Officially, the company is mum on the subject, but previous references indicate that 2013 may be the year. The company's supply chain manager, who is responsible for procuring everything from spacesuits for the passengers to furniture for the celebration lounge, is less definitive. "We're not date-driven," says Sean Jodoin. "We'll go when it will be safe."

Beyond Virgin Galactic's inaugural passenger flight and contract research flights for customers including NASA, Anderson focuses on 2014, when the state expects the spaceport to be fully self-supporting. After that, her thoughts turn to the point-to-point space travel the facility could eventually support and the hotels and orbital passenger travel Virgin Galactic foretells.

Clearly, the sky is no longer the limit in New Mexico.


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