The state legislature has been in session for two weeks now. Reports are coming from Santa Fe about southern New Mexico. More debate is occurring about the future of our spaceport. Establishing a new industry like commercial space transportation requires demand for its products and services. Commercial products of the commercial space transportation industry include new launch vehicles, satellites and their related technologies. A new industry also requires leaders who are commitment and have the ability to articulate and advocate. There is a way to separate advocacy from hype: results. Results should be closely coupled with realistic expectations. We get it.
Worldwide attention was focused on New Mexico when it became clear commercial operations by Virgin Galactic would be delayed at Spaceport America for an unknown period of time. The attention to New Mexico blew off the front pages of the global newspapers as quickly as the last snow storm blew through town last week.
Yet, local attention is growing into a gathering storm as more legislators begin to discuss again, what are we doing with this spaceport? Benjamin Franklin once observed, “as long as Britain avoided tyranny there was no danger of the colonies rebelling. While the government is mild and just…subjects will be silent and dutiful. The waves do not rise, but when the winds blow.”
While the spaceport has been a subject of controversy, the legislators are becoming more familiar with the project, but are they familiar with commercial space? There is a growing expectation that not only is the Executive Director of the spaceport answerable to the legislature, but now our local legislators are also being examined in and outside of the public view. The wisest among us know, the better the information the better the decision.
Information about the industry in which the spaceport exists is in the news regularly. On January 9th, 2015, NASA selected 4 commercial space Collaborative Partners, including Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX. Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters said, “companies of all shapes and sizes are investing their own capital toward innovative commercial space capabilities.”
SpaceX, one of the companies working at Spaceport America, is developing space transportation capabilities as NASA states in their press release. These transportation capabilities could be used to support deep space missions. Currently, SpaceX is developing a test site at the spaceport for their reusable first stage booster. Here’s how the spaceport and SpaceX can benefit New Mexico beyond what they are doing currently.
SpaceX is flying commercial experiments to the International Space Station’s Center for Aerospace Science in Space (CASIS). As described previously in the column, CASIS was established by Congress to develop commercial products that require the microgravity environment. If NASA and the taxpayers are going to the expense of sending a technology to space, there has to be a reason the experiment needs the microgravity environment, otherwise it is much cheaper to keep the research project on earth.
In order to get certified to go to ISS, experiments must be certified by NASA and part of that certification process requires a Test Readiness Level (TRL) of 4. To get a TRL 4 minimum certification, you must fly in the space environment. Why?
Going to space on a rocket is a rough ride. Experiments must get through this rough ride and work when they arrive at the space station. If they fall apart, its best they do so at Spaceport America on one of our sounding rocket launches. Fail Cheap, Fail Smart! That is why New Mexico Space Grant, Arrowhead Center at NMSU and CASIS have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to help researchers use our spaceport to help them get to the ISS in working condition.
On January 15th, Greg Wyler and Richard Branson shared the news of , “an exciting project that could transform the world: we are creating a new constellation of satellites to make high speed internet and telephony available to billions of people who don’t currently have access. Branson reported, “we have the biggest order ever for putting satellites into space. By the time our second constellation is developed, the company will have launched more satellites than there currently are in the sky.”
The Virgin Group and Qualcomm Incorporated are the principle investors in OneWeb Ltd. Branson is looking forward to sitting alongside OneWeb Ltd Founder Greg Wyler and Qualcomm Chairman Dr Paul Jacobs on the company’s board. Mr. Branson said, I take my hat off to Greg for his vision in creating this satellite constellation and his persistence. OneWeb is in a final review of candidate satellite manufacturers and will select a prime contractor by this spring. Satellite launches would start in 2017.
In 2012, I was in London when Branson announced the development of a small satellite company called LauncerOne. I have seen the development facility at Mojave Air and Space Port and of course, the WhiteKnightTwo. It is this vehicle that will air lift LauncherOne which will carry the satellites to space. Watch the video at http://goo.gl/wwrHHH.
Branson envisioned another business line for Virgin Galactic space launch system years ago.
A key word that describes both company founders, Elon Musk and Richard Branson, visionary. It takes vision, lots of money, commitment and advocacy to grow an industry. These guys have vision, do we? One thing is certain, New Mexico is in the lead here to capture business. I support the Governor’s optimism and thank her for her support of the spaceport. Those of us who act to make the visions of what is possible in the industry a reality, do so because it is the one way we can make sure the winds of action make the waves rise at our spaceport. Let’s get to work by staying informed about the commercial space industry and the role of New Mexico as a leader in this industry. Then we can get our expectations in line with reality.
Pat Hynes can be contacted at patriciahynes.com