Image: Launch rail
UP Aerospace
UP Aerospace's launch rail has been raised for the first time at the New Mexico spaceport. In the background, workers are readying the mobile Vehicle Assembly Building that will roll over the launch rail hardware.
By Senior space writer
updated 4/19/2006 3:12:28 PM ET 2006-04-19T19:12:28

Work at the New Mexico spaceport has reached a milestone as facilities are ready to support the first rocket flight from the site, now targeted for July. Meanwhile, state planners have issued a request for proposals to design and engineer the scaled-up Southwest Regional Spaceport, the needed hangers, control and support buildings, roads, utilities, launch pads, fuel storage facilities and other infrastructure requirements.

Location of the New Mexico spaceport — 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Las Cruces and 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of Truth or Consequences — is a remote area near Upham that is favored due to low population density, uncongested airspace and high elevation.

The New Mexico Economic Development Department is currently working with various commercial space operations to establish the new Southwest Regional Spaceport at Upham. Creation of the spaceport is considered a key component in the state’s bid to attract space-related business to New Mexico.

“The spaceport has come to life,” said Jerry Larson, president of Connecticut-based UP Aerospace, Inc. — the group that will conduct an inaugural rocket blastoff and follow-on flights from the New Mexico spaceport grounds. “The spaceport is open for business,” he told

Larson said last week that key elements to support the launch of the UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL suborbital rocket are now in place. A launch pad and rail, a custom-built rolling rocket enclosure, storage facilities, launch control center and payload processing center are on site.

These mobile, temporary structures “could work for us for quite a few years,” Larson said. Still ahead for the state is finishing up an environmental impact statement, which is critical for obtaining a spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation in Washington.

Given the temporary nature of the infrastructure at the spaceport property, UP Aerospace can initiate its suborbital launch plans. Spaceport construction crews have put in place the culmination of some six months of engineering and fabrication work, Larson said.

“We’ve been given the keys to the spaceport … the baton has been handed to us. Now we’re going to carry it forward and get ready for flight in July,” Larson said.

Launch calendar
“Our 56-foot-tall launcher has now been craned onto the launch pad. It’s exciting to see the mobile launch facilities now in position. These major on-site milestones will allow us to execute our site-activation plan — culminating in the multiple space launches we have scheduled for this year,” said Eric Knight, chief executive officer for UP Aerospace. “With all the major facilities now in place, we can begin to firm up our 2006 space-launch calendar.”

Knight told that it is realistic to expect a midsummer launch to inaugurate the spaceport. “As it looks right now, July would be an excellent — and very achievable — target.”

There is, however, no intent to rush the process to meet some artificial deadline. “We’ll be flying vehicles into space from New Mexico for many years to come. Doing it right — and safely — are our ultimate measures of success,” Knight emphasized.

The SpaceLoft XL offers enough oomph to carry a wide variety of payloads on the maiden flight out of the spaceport, Larson said. The types of payloads, he added, include a number of items from customers that can’t be revealed at this time, he said.

“When you hear about what they are … you’ll be amazed. It’s kind of refreshing to hear what some of those are,” Larson noted.

Pathfinder work ahead
To reach a July liftoff of the UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL there is considerable work ahead.

Larson said that a checklist of items includes site activation, hooking up computers, laying down wiring, installing radio transmitters — “basically, put it all together so we can operate and launch the rocket.”

In the mid-May time frame, UP Aerospace will carry out “pathfinder” work at the spaceport. This will involve an inert rocket — the flight vehicle, sans rocket motor. “This will help us work through all the procedures needed to be able to operate and handle ordnance and rocket safely,” Larson explained.

Follow-on testing phase work at the spaceport includes separation staging run-throughs of the rocket to check out parachute deployments.

“Once we’re done with the testing phase, then we’re ready to start the launch campaign. That consists of having the rocket motor delivered, processing the motor and its igniter, and getting the rocket ready to go,” Larson said.

Larson said watching the stepped-up spaceport work has been nerve-wracking. “I’m not used to being around big, heavy equipment that lifts all of the heavy structures … especially my launcher which I worked on, designwise, for almost a year now,” he said.

“But now that it’s finally all on the ground … I slept easy last night,” Larson admitted.

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