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Low-altitude rocket launched in New Mexico

A Florida-based avionics company successfully fired a low-altitude rocket at a new spaceport in New Mexico where the state hopes to launch commercial space tourism flights.
Image: Rocket glider
A low-altitude rocket glider lifts off Tuesday from Spaceport America in Upham, N.M.Norm Dettlaff / Las Cruces Sun-News via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An Orlando, Fla.-based avionics company successfully fired a low-altitude rocket Tuesday at a new spaceport in New Mexico where the state hopes to launch commercial space tourism flights within two years.

Officials at Spaceport America said such tests are important steps, not only toward viable space travel but also to demonstrate the site's uses for other commercial space development.

"This is the precursor to huge things, multibillion-dollar projects," spaceport director Steve Landeene said. "You've got to prove it's viable."

Moog Industries fired the rocket after a roughly 90-minute delay brought on by a glitch in a GPS antenna that had to be replaced.

The problem led to postponement of a planned second launch that would have represented the first time a private company completed two liftoffs from the same site in one day.

Spaceport officials said the research and development test was important because it demonstrated commercial applications beyond $200,000 spaceflights for tourists that Virgin Galactic plans to operate within two years.

Recovery teams were sent out to retrieve the used rocket for evaluation, and the window to launch expired as officials examined it.

Ray Nielsen, chief engineer for Moog Industries, said the initial flight of the 8-foot-long prototype vehicle he termed a rocket glider accomplished "100 percent of its objectives."

He said, however, the black rocket missed a planned runway landing by several hundred feet. Had it returned to the desired location, Nielsen said the second flight probably would have been possible.

The company is planning to retest the vehicle by the end of the week, he said.

Jerry Larson of Up Aerospace, which launched the rocket for Moog, said there are five more launch windows in the coming days.

Nielsen said the rocket has military applications for surveillance. He said it would allow someone in a forward operating post to "get up in a hurry, go over a hill and take a look around."

He praised the New Mexico site, saying the company saved 18 months of work obtaining flight permits and meeting other requirements it would have faced on a military test range.

"This vehicle came off the drawing board 30 days ago," Nielsen said. "To simply go out, put a design on paper and then build it, this site probably saved us a year and a half."

Although Moog officials wouldn't disclose the cost of the flights, Landeene said the spaceport can offer better and faster access at a lower cost when compared to military ranges.

Nielsen agreed, saying: "New Mexico is an excellent place for us to fly a mission like this."

The rocket rose 2,200 feet above the desert, arced against the morning sunshine, cut power and glided in for a belly landing. It bounced on the earth, scattering some debris, but all the pieces were easily recovered.

Nielsen said engineers testing the vehicle's guidance system were thrilled by the rocket's performance. Moog also does work involving weapons systems and cruise missiles.

Larson said Moog representatives were "jumping up and down in the launch control center." He said the test demonstrated an important commercial application because his three-person crew took the assignment only a few weeks ago.

"The great thing about New Mexico is that we can set a launch date on short notice," Larson said. "It demonstrates a small launch crew can pull off a highly technical event."