Commercial space travel, no longer limited to the realms of science fiction, has taken a major step forward with the launch of Spaceport America, in Las Cruces, New Mexico - and with it are coming new job opportunities

It may not look like much at the moment, but once complete in 2010, Spaceport America will lead the way in commercial space travel. Situated in the heart of the Mesilla Valley, 72km (45 miles) north of the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, the site is ideally located to service the growing demand for commercial space tourism and low-cost, small payload launches.

Lying within the restricted airspace shadow of White Sands Missile Range, the area has no commercial over-flights - a unique feature for any inland port in the USA. It also has prime access to a wealth of technical expertise thanks to New Mexico State University and a strong local aerospace presence. NASA's White Sands Test Facility is nearby, as well as major aerospace players including Boeing, General Dynamics and Raytheon, all of which have facilities in the region.

These factors, combined with a local climate that provides an average of 340 days of annual sunshine and an elevation of 4,500ft (1,370m), which provides a 15% saving in launch costs, makes it the perfect site for the enterprise.

Jointly funded by private partnerships and local state funding, the development is predicted to cost $225 million. However, according to Steve Vierck, president and chief executive of the Mesilla Valley Economic Alliance, the impact of the new development could provide a massive economic boost to the region.

"Here at the Mesilla Valley Economic Alliance we have focused on how best to develop the region's economy and have identified five target clusters - number one being the aerospace sector," he says. "A study conducted by New Mexico State University predicts that the Spaceport will be capable of generating $300 million in annual earnings and sustain 3,000 specialised jobs within five years of start-up."

Despite the region's excellent record in developing highly specialised engineering graduates and technical specialists, the area has traditionally struggled to retain skilled personnel.

"The Spaceport holds massive potential, not just in terms of commercial enterprise, but also in terms of science research and education," adds Steve.

In December 2005, Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial space tourism business, announced it had signed a memorandum of agreement to base its new headquarters at Spaceport America. The company's development plans are now well advanced, with testing of the new SpaceShipTwo prototype, based on the pioneering work of Burt Rutan, expected to begin later this year.

"While much of the projected business will be commercial, we've also had considerable interest in using the Las Cruces facilities for small payload launches, such as micro-satellites," explains Steve.

Although still at an embryonic stage, state government funding for the project is already well established. On 3 April, funding took another leap forwards with the approval of a spaceport tax in Dona Ana County, which is expected to raise an additional $6.5 million a year for the next 20 years.

According to Rick Homans, chairman of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and the state's cabinet secretary for economic development: "New Mexico is prepared to launch a whole new era of discovery, exploration and commercial activity in space, on the Moon and beyond. We have nothing but beautiful black sky ahead of us."


Source: Flight International