Spaceport is built, but who will come?

September 23, 2012 by Jeri Clausing
This Oct. 17, 2011 file photo shows British billionaire Sir Richard Branson drinking champagne after repelling down the side of the new Spaceport America hangar in Upham, N.M. As the nation's first launch station to send people to space nears completion, some see signs New Mexico may have reached for the stars -- and got stuck in the bad economy. (AP Photo/Matt York)

New Mexico Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson says it will be New Mexico's Sydney Opera House. Virgin Galactic Chairman Richard Branson has hinted it will host the first of his new brand of lifestyle hotels. And the eclectic hot springs town of Truth or Consequences has been anxiously awaiting all the economic development the nearly quarter-of-a-billion-dollar project is supposed to bring to this largely rural part of southern New Mexico.

But as phase one of Spaceport America, the world's first commercial port built specifically for sending tourists and payloads into space, is nearing completion, the only new hotel project that has been finalized is a Holiday Inn Express here in Truth or Consequences, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. And three key companies with millions of dollars in payroll have passed on developing operations in the state.

The lagging development, along with competition from heavy hitters like Florida and Texas, is raising new questions about the viability of the $209 billion taxpayer-funded project—as well as the rush by so many states to grab a piece of the commercial spaceport pie. To date, nine spaceports are planned around the United States, mostly at existing airports, and another 10 have been proposed, according to a recent report from the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

"Right now, the industry is not there to support it," Alex Ignatiev, a University of Houston physics professor and adviser to space companies, said of the list of planned and proposed spaceports across America.

Andrew Nelson, COO of XCOR Aerospace, disagrees, saying "in the next couple to three years, there's going to be a demonstrative reduction in the cost to launch stuff ... so we are going to have a lot more people coming out of the woodwork."

Currently, the Spaceport can count on two rocket companies that send vertical payloads into space and Virgin Galactic, the Branson space tourism venture that says it has signed up more than 500 wealthy adventurers for $200,000-per-person spaceflights. Other leaders in the race to commercialize the business and send tourists into space have been passing on New Mexico.

For example, XCOR Aerospace, which manufactures reusable rocket engines for major aerospace contractors and is designing a two-person space vehicle called the Lynx, has twice passed over New Mexico in favor of Texas and Florida. Most recently, it announced plans to locate its new Commercial Space Research and Development Center Headquarters in Midland, Texas.

Another company, RocketCrafters, Inc., passed over New Mexico for Titusville, Florida. And the space tourism company of SpaceX, is looking at basing a plant with $50 million in annual salaries in Brownsville, Texas.

Locally, officials blame the lack of new businesses on the legislature's refusal to pass laws that would exempt spacecraft suppliers from liability for passengers should the spacecraft crash or blow up. When New Mexico was developing Spaceport in partnership with Virgin Galactic, it passed a law to exempt the carrier through 2018, but not parts suppliers. Colorado, Florida, Texas and Virginia have adopted permanent liability exemption laws for both carriers and suppliers. The laws, called informed consent, are much like those that exempt ski areas from lawsuits by skiers, who waive their rights for claims when they buy a ski pass. Spaceport officials emphasize the carriers and suppliers would not be exempt from damage on the ground, or in cases of gross negligence.

"The issue is informed consent legislation," said Truth or Consequences Mayor John Mulcahy. "We need to get that passed."

Companies make no secret of the fact that the liability laws have played a role in their decision to go elsewhere. But they also cite 's remote location —45 miles (72 kilometers) from Las Cruces and 200 miles (320 kilometerrs) from Albuquerque—and a failure by the state to offer competitive incentives as factors.

"We worked with (former Gov. Bill) Richardson's people as well as (Gov. Susana) Martinez," Nelson said. "They are all fine. They have been great. But they couldn't deliver the package that was necessary to get across the goal line."

Spaceport's success is tied largely to Virgin Galactic, which signed a 20-year lease to operate its commercial business from the site. Over the next two decades, the company's lease payments and user fees are expected to generate $250 million and more. But the terms of the lease or what penalties might be imposed if Branson pulls out are not publicly known. And the facility was planned with the idea that at least one new major tenant would move in by 2016.

"We are so happy we have as anchors," said Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Space Authority, which is lobbying lawmakers to approve informed consent. "But we want to attract more tenants. ... I think this is really a critical piece of legislation that New Mexico has to have."

Nelson says his company hasn't ruled out one day flying his Lynx aircraft in New Mexico. But he says the legislature's wavering on the liability exemptions "sends a message that we cannot expect a consistent response," he said.

Meanwhile, Branson's estimate for a first manned flight has been pushed back until late 2013 at the earliest. And questions remain about the facility's tourism draw.

Tourism and Spaceport officials have estimated as many as 200,000 people a year would visit the futuristic center. Branson told a national hotel conference in 2011 that he might put one of his still to be developed Virgin hotels in the area. But there has been no further word on that hotel, or others that have been rumored to cater to the space crowd.

Ignatiev estimates it will be 10 years before the commercial business really takes off, "And I don't know how many states or commercial entities can sit around for 10 years and wait for business to show up. They are going to have a problem staying viable."

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4.7 / 5 (3) Sep 23, 2012
maybe they are walking too far in front of their own music, something that could be afforded before the creditcrisis when we thought anything is possible and the masses were willing to go/pay with the latest hype, now you better have to show an actual regular flying spacetourism service before you start with the spinoff and addon "dubairessorts" businessmodels.

Still I keep both thumbs firmly raised for the brave adventurer of our time, Richard Branson, for I, like many people on this site and all over the world would buy that spaceticket as soon as they can afford it.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 23, 2012
Why are they focusing so much on "Space tourism" when that simply isn't sustainable. There are only so many multi-millionaires willing to spend 200k per flight, and then he's out of business; Five hundred adventurers? That's only 100 million dollars, which is an insignificant amount compared to the cost of these facilities and the rockets themselves.

Still, his launch cost is apparently going to be at least 10 times cheaper per pound than NASA's launch costs, else he could not make a return at all with those prices.

Wouldn't it make a lot more sense for a space innovator to do space mining, and make a claim on one of the medium sized asteroids, seeing as how you'd have a LOT more to work with than a few hundred tourists.

Given the present prices of precious metals plust Rhodium, a mining company ought to be able to make enormous profits both short and long term.
1 / 5 (5) Sep 23, 2012
Mining of Rhodium is expensive too, so that the profit of this business is relatively low with respect to investments. And because the consumption of rhodium is low correspondingly, its prices are quite volatile: when you throw large amount of Rhodium into market, its price will fall immediately and you'll lose a huge amount of your investments. It's not so easy and reliable business, as it appears at the first sight and only strongest investors can attempt for it.

After all, the similar problem exists with cold fusion start-ups. The cold fusion may appear like impressive business, but at the moment when you reveal its principle, everyone will start to copy it too and you will become the last person at the starting field immediately.
2.5 / 5 (2) Sep 23, 2012

The cold fusion example is inappropriate, which is why I think someone already gave you a 1.

We know asteroids have Gold and Platinum in them through studying remains of the respective meteoroids.

You don't have to dump something on the market for half price, once you have a facility up and running, you can sell for a few percent below existing market price, which will be enough to out-compete existing mines, and then eventually you pay off your facilities and can go even lower.

Given the apparent launch prices Virgin MUST be able to produce, the potential returns are incredible, and dropping the price of Gold or platinum by 50% would still be profitable and it would be a good thing for civilization due to technology which could benefit from these metals being cheap.

There are a lot of challenges I acknowledge, but one of the biggest benefits is the fact that you don't have to be concerned about environmental impacts, since it's in the middle of dead space anyway.
not rated yet Sep 23, 2012
I visited Truth or Consequences, NM about two years ago because of the space port (it was finishing the work). I also spoke with John Mulcahy regarding the space port. I remain in contact with developments. My impression was and remains a sleeping little town, no support facilities, no brain power, and a very hot place. I have no idea why they pick this place except close to White Sands missile site??? I wish them luck.
3.8 / 5 (4) Sep 23, 2012
You don't have to "Buy" an asteroid.

It's there to claim, apparently, just like land during the colonial age.

Although we may have international laws forbidding certain activities, and treaties may need to be inacted to avoid interplanetary war, but in general nobody owns this resource yet, and it's there to be claimed by any corporation or government with the know-how to accomplish it.

Some of the SMALLER Asteroids have been estimated to have values of $10 trillion or more, just from the average expected Gold and Platinum returns, not counting other valuable metals which can be shipped back as a bonus.

The price of Gold would actually be very stable, because if it was more common it could be used in a higher quantity in a higher number of electronics, appliances, or even electric engines.

A mere 1% profit on Gold at present market prices would still be around $250 per pound, which is a LOT more profitable and sustainable than space tourism...
3 / 5 (2) Sep 23, 2012
Where are all the rich job creators creating jobs?
1 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2012
view from Truth or Consequences, NM: Richard Branson has all but estranged this humble little town. he has turned his back on broadband here which also would help him. Virgin-Broadband as well, we cringe when we hear of all those loftier places that feature 4g which will never come. 3g VB2Go here is worse than dial up. Yes, he built a fake city in the middle of the desert. we pay now 7.825% sales tax from 6.25% because of that spaceport and we are still paying for it.....our sales tax did not go down. this has not paid off. the mean income here is 24K/yr. and a sales tax hike like that means something. so before anyone begins punditry, we know what RB has to say has no, zip, zero meaning.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2012
Branson Space Systems (BSS) would be well served by allowing other carriers like XCOR to use the facilities, as for XCOR's Lynx suborbital spacecraft. His really would be the first true spaceport.

On the subject of the Lynx. It would be an eminently more useful craft if it had an ISS compatible access port. Thus far, it seems to be intended for the same purpose as the Virgin Galactic suborbiter, ie. tourism.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2012
Thus far, it seems to be intended for the same purpose as the Virgin Galactic suborbiter, ie. tourism.

There aren't enough millionaires and billionaires in the world so that even if all of them went on such a cruise at a cost of 200k per person so as to pay back his investment in revenues, never mind profits, even if his launch costs are ten times cheaper than NASA per pound.

So something has to give. There has to be some sort of business model for space mining and other forms of income, such as satellite launches, else they will never recover these investments.

If he had 10,000 passengers at 200k each, that's only 2 billion dollars, where is the other 207 billion dollars needed for break-even coming from?! And I doubt that's break even, because at the very least the fuel for each mission is an added cost, even if there are no maintenance costs whatsoever.
5 / 5 (3) Sep 23, 2012
Everyone arguing that there aren't enough people willing to pay 200k for this trip fail to understand 2 things:

1) The number of people who could afford this. (Think of how large the supercar market is)

2) The economies of scale.

The plan has never been to keep the price at 200k. When the price was initially announced, the idea was that within 10 years, the price could be in the 2-10 thousand range, thanks to cash flow - which is the most important part of any business. Think of these first 500 flyers as the early adopters of a technology. There are few of them, but they are there to provide proof that there is demand and that the tech works. This will lead to advancements and funding through the mechanism of profit. So just as cell phones began as an expensive niche and now dominate the market, this too will eventually become more affordable...just give it time.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2012
Was Sir Richard Branson really "repelling" down the side of the new Spaceport America hangar? I personally find him repellent, but I think a different word was intended.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 23, 2012

You do realize the majority of rocket launch costs continues to be the fuel, right? And that this price almost never goes down, right?

In order to make human space tourism at 2k to 10k per passenger, he would need to be 100 to 1000 times more cost-effective than NASA, which is probably nowhere near physically possible,e ven if you magically remove the government bureaucracy aspects which add to NASA's costs.

A couple years ago there was a start-up company claiming they could launch satellite payloads for (initially) 10 times less than NASA, (eventually) about 30 times less than NASA or ESA. I haven't heard anything out of them since then.

Gravity is ultimately the limiting factor, and no matter how light or efficient your rocket is you can't get below a certain minimum physical limit in fuel requirements.
1 / 5 (5) Sep 23, 2012
What you see is a mere mortal, once hearing "I dub thee knight" from none other than Her Majesty the Queen, now trying to drown his sorrows by directly imbibing from his bottle of bubbly. After the global economic collapse, his brand of braggadocio is particularly out of place in this world. He can't even sell records- how is he going to sell commoners pricey seats to the stars?
1 / 5 (2) Sep 23, 2012
water is what is what you would want acquire. gold has a very low utility value. gold has no value in space. urarium, lead,tritium, berylium and construction materials which could be used in space
are what would be valuable
3 / 5 (3) Sep 23, 2012
water is what is what you would want acquire. gold has a very low utility value. gold has no value in space. urarium, lead,tritium, berylium and construction materials which could be used in space
are what would be valuable

Here's how this works.

Go to asteroid.

Mine Gold and Platinum. Use iron and Silica wastes to make a cheap, low grade capsule with heat shield (does not need to be human spaceworthy,). Put the refined metals inside the capsule and drop onto Earth in a desert place or in a shallow lake or ocean where nobody gets hurt. Retrieve capsule.

By never, or almost never landing a ship, you save immeasurably on launch costs.

By building drop pods from the less-valuable materials in space, you avoid launch costs. Not to mention the iron would be salvageable in addition to the Gold and Platinum, etc.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2012
water is what is what you would want acquire. gold has a very low utility value. gold has no value in space.

Shows how little you know.

If humanity had access to the insane amounts of Gold believed to be in Asteroids (or else what is probably in the deeper layers of our own crust,) we could make ultra-efficient electronics far cheaper.

Gold and platinum are also among the most heavily studied metals for use in nanotechnology, including medical nanotech, advanced catalysts, self-assembly, optics, electronics, and other fields.

Someone may say, "well, we only need an insignificant amount for those things."

I'd say, I don't care what something was designed to do, I care what it can do, and what it can be adapted or modified to do.

In the future we may be able to make so many applications of nano-tech that it would boggle our minds, and Gold and Platinum are probably going to be an important part of those devices, as well as interfacing the macroscopic with the nano.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2012
water is what is what you would want acquire. gold has a very low utility value. gold has no value in space. urarium, lead,tritium, berylium and construction materials which could be used in space
are what would be valuable

Iron and alumina compounds are among the most common materials in the known solar system in terms of Luna and other moons as well as asteroids.

Because the gravity on all of the bodies we are likely to visit is ultra-low compared to Earth, the structural integrity requirements of all structures and vehicles are minimal.

i.e. The Gravity on Mars is 1/3rd of Earth, so you need only 1/3rd the vertical strength in a structure as compared to Earth.

The max wind on Mars is 300mph, but by the time you adjust for the atmospheric density, the kinetic energy of a 300mph wind there is only about the same as a 30mph wind on Earth, which is of little concern, and requires minimal diagonal and cross bracing.

2.5 / 5 (2) Sep 23, 2012
And so having said that, and amount of such metals lying around on the surface or in relatively small deposits by Earth standards, mere by-product of mining for Gold and Platinum and other truly valuable products, would be more than enough to provide primary structural components for human habitats, as well as robots, vehicles, and other machines.

One of the biggest problems I see is that metallic asteroids are chemically bound, but in ultra-low gravity, being essentially giant nuggets or crystals in space. This could be a problem for mining operations, so mining a carbonaceous chondrite or rubble pile type asteroid may be more profitable, even though the ores might be of a lower grade. After all, how do you melt a giant block of solid metal enough to cut pieces from it? A laser can only do so much and requires immense fuel supplies, although you could in theory cut out conics from the asteroid with a powerful enough laser, perhaps powered by a solar collector....
2.5 / 5 (2) Sep 23, 2012
Anyway, a laser diode on a swivel head capable of cutting out conic shaped chunks from a rock or metal asteroid is what I see as the simplest and easiest way to mine in space. minimal moving parts, and only one full circulation per conic cut. With a sufficiently powerufl laser, you may get several meters penetration, I don't know, but anyway, just pull out the chunks.

If it's aggregate, send it to the smelter to get iron and silica to make structural components for a cargo pod and heat shields. If it's concentrated enough to be an ore, you'd refine it to as high a percentage as economical for the valuable ores and then ship it back.

Anyway, with this system your cutting device has one moving part: a slowly rotating swivel head angled slightly inwards to cut a cone. This will minimize lubricant and maintenance costs.

Power is a problem, but I think concentrated solar is enough, even at asteroid distances, because laser is so energy dense...
not rated yet Sep 24, 2012
Ballistic trajectories? meh.

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