New Mexico unveils spaceport design

An artist's conception shows the Spaceport America's terminal building, surrounded by White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo vehicles. Most of the facility would be built underground.
An artist's conception shows the Spaceport America's terminal building, surrounded by White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo vehicles. Most of the facility would be built underground.Virgin Galactic / Foster + Partners
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Architectural and engineering teams have begun shaping the look and feel of New Mexico's Spaceport America, taking the wraps off new images that showcase the curb appeal of the sprawling main terminal and hangar at the futuristic facility.

Last month, a team of U.S. and British architects and designers won a recommendation for designing the primary terminal and hangar facility at Spaceport America — structures that symbolize the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport.

Selected from an international field of 11 firms, the winning design is the work of URS Corp., a large design and engineering enterprise, teamed with Foster + Partners of the United Kingdom, a group with extensive experience in crafting airport buildings.

When the 100,000-square-foot (9,290-square-meter) facility is completed, the structures will serve as the primary operating base for Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceliner, as well as the headquarters for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

The terminal and hangar facility will provide room for aircraft and spacecraft, plus Virgin Galactic's operations facilities, including preflight and postflight facilities, administrative offices and lounges. The spacious maintenance hangar can hold two White Knight Two carrier aircraft and five SpaceShipTwo spaceliners — vessels now under construction at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.

Destination experience
The terminal and hangar facility are projected to cost about $31 million, and will provide a "Destination Experience" for visitors to Spaceport America. Virgin Galactic intends to sign a 20-year lease for approximately 84,000 square feet (7,803 square meters) in the building.

"The URS/Foster team presented us with a concept that blends sensitivity to the environment, cutting-edge technology and a stunning image and shape when viewed from high above," Kelly O'Donnell, chair of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, noted in a press statement last month.

The design chosen is a low-lying, striking bit of construction that uses natural earth as a berm, and relies on passive energy for heating and cooling, with photovoltaic panels for electricity and water recycling capabilities. A rolling concrete shell acts as a roof with massive windows opening to a view of the runway and spacecraft.

According to a press statement released Tuesday, the low-lying, organic shape resembles a rise in the landscape, and will use local materials and regional construction techniques.

"A careful balance between accessibility and privacy is achieved, as visitors and astronauts enter the building through a deep channel cut in the landscape," the statement noted. "The walls will form an exhibition area leading to a galleried level above the hangar that houses the spacecraft and on through to the terminal building. Natural light enters via skylights, with a glazed façade reserved for the terminal building, establishing a platform for spectacular views onto the runway."

Environmentally efficient landmark
Renderings of the main terminal and hangar facility were unveiled Tuesday during a press conference held at the Pan American Center on the New Mexico State University campus in Las Cruces, N.M. Announcements regarding the winning team and the design were held up due to the tragic Mojave Air and Space Port accident on July 26, in which a test stand explosion killed three Scaled Composites employees.

The founder of Foster + Partners, Lord Norman Foster, said in an earlier press comment that the world's first space terminal would be a technically complex building. The facility not only will provide a dramatic experience for the astronauts and visitors, "but will set an ecologically sound model for future spaceport facilities," he added.

Jens Deichmann, vice president of URS Corp., accented their group's involvement: "Our team of New Mexico, regional and international talent is excited to help the state of New Mexico and Virgin Galactic advance their goals of commercial space travel and scientific and engineering education."

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority is currently finalizing contract negotiations with URS and Foster + Partners. The team will then begin working with the spaceport authority and Virgin Galactic to complete the design of the facility, and the spaceport authority expects to put the construction of the facility out for bids in the first half of 2008.

Construction of Spaceport America would begin in 2008, dependent on the Federal Aviation Administration's issuance of a site operator's license to the spaceport authority. Completion is expected in late 2009 or early 2010.

2008: Year of the spaceship?
Founded by Branson, a British entrepreneur and adventurer, Virgin Galactic was created to undertake the challenge of making private space travel available to everyone.

From a launch out of the weeds to a special delivery in orbit, see the best space offerings from January 2014.

"The deal between New Mexico and URS working with Sir Norman Foster will produce a spectacular but very environmentally efficient landmark for the new era of space travel," explained Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic.

"The design for Spaceport America is not only breathtaking but also practical, which is also what I believe SpaceShipTwo and its launch aircraft WhiteKnight Two will be regarded as when their respective designs are unveiled next January," Whitehorn told

Whitehorn added that, with the commencement of construction at Spaceport America and the completion of construction of White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo, he and his Virgin Galactic team are now confident that 2008 will be "The Year of the Spaceship."