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Sizing up the 'Space Belt'

The American Southwest is emerging as the nation's new "Space Belt," with final-frontier entrepreneurs gravitating to Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Southern California. Oklahoma definitely scored a coup this week by receiving a federal license for its spaceport near Burns Flat. But the next significant foray into the new-space frontier is scheduled for New Mexico, with this summer's inaugural launch from the Land of Enchantment's not-quite-spaceport.

UP Aerospace / KRQE
The 20-foot-tall Spaceloft rocket is mated to

UP Aerospace's 56-foot-tall, 7-ton launcher.

The state hasn't even sent in its license application for the Southwest Regional Spaceport, near Upham, N.M. - but UP Aerospace will nevertheless send up its suborbital SpaceLoft XL rocket to the fringe of outer space sometime this summer, brim full with 110 pounds' worth of commercial payloads.

That poundage may not sound like a lot: It's about as much as Britney Spears weighed, pre-pregnancy. But UP Aerospace is trying to fill an ultra-low-cost niche in the launch industry - and the Connecticut-based company's chief executive officer, Eric Knight, says business is booming.

"We look at ourselves as a vertical airline - almost the Southwest Airlines of outer space," Knight told me Wednesday.

He declined to say what UP's launch costs were, saying he was playing that card close to the vest because it's "our competitive advantage." But one of UP's customers for this launch, Seattle-based ZG Aerospace, is offering to send business cards into space for $50 each - an indication that flying stuff on an UP rocket can be affordable, though certainly not yet dirt-cheap.

Knight noted that universities ranging from New Mexico State to Brown will have research payloads aboard the SpaceLoft - and he promises some additional commercial surprises. "We have some companies that are going to be doing product 'launches,' so to speak," he said.

Just this week, UP Aerospace completed its initial run-throughs for all the procedures that will be involved in the space mission. "We'll have many mission rehearsals in the weeks leading up to the launch," Knight said.

He said he couldn't name the launch date yet because of the company's arrangements with the White Sands Missile Range, where the rocket is to fall back to earth for recovery. "Within about a month, we'll be able to say when the launch is," he said.

UP is able to launch even though New Mexico doesn't have its spaceport license because its rocket will be operated under the terms of an FAA amateur waiver. Among other things, that means the SpaceLoft's burn time will be limited to no more than 15 seconds. Despite the limitations, the rocket should easily surpass the 62-mile altitude that marks the boundary of outer space, he said.

In fact, the data gathered during the SpaceLoft mission will be used to support New Mexico's spaceport license application to the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That meshes with the state's plans to finish its application by the end of this year, in hopes of becoming a true spaceport in the first half of 2007.

There were two other items adding to this week's buzz about the Space Belt:

  • New Mexico state officials announced that they have selected a Los Angeles-based firm to do engineering and design work for spaceport facilities. In partnership with two New Mexico firms, DMJM/AECOM will be planning out the control building, hangars, launch-and-landing facilities, fuel depots and other infrastructure requirements for the nearly 15,000-acre site. The construction timetable calls for suborbital passenger spaceflights to begin in 2009 or 2010.
  • Flight International provided further details about the space tourism plans of Virgin Galactic, the anchor tenant for the New Mexico spaceport. Virgin has worked out a deal with Scaled Composites - the company in Mojave, Calif., that created the history-making SpaceShipOne rocket plane - for a fleet of "SpaceShipTwo" passenger spacecraft. The latest report says that SpaceShipTwo passengers will reach a maximum altitude of 87.5 miles (140 kilometers), feeling 4 G's on the way up and 7 G's on the way down.

One G, or gravity, is a measure of acceleration, equivalent to the pull you feel on Earth's surface at sea level. Here are a couple of more useful comparisons: Shuttle astronauts generally pull 3 G's, and the most challenging roller coasters give you 5 to 6 G's. SpaceShipTwo passengers will definitely have to take 7 G's lying down (in their cushioned, reclinable seats, that is).

Flight International also says SpaceShipTwo isn't likely to be unveiled until late next year. The first commercial flights may take off from and land back in Mojave, but eventually the main base of operations will shift to New Mexico - conceivably with takeoffs from the Upham spaceport and landings in, of all places, Roswell.