Fields of Dreams

Will starry-eyed entrepreneurs transform today’s wide-open spaces into tomorrow’s spaceports?

Spaceport Singapore, envisioned by Space Adventures, Ltd., would cost $115 million. A Singapore-based consortium and the Crown Prince of Ras Al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates are backing the venture. (Space Adventures)
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The fabled spaceports of Dubai, Singapore, and elsewhere exist primarily in the form of Web sites and/or misty artist’s conceptions.

Against all this, the only launch site that has remotely approximated the concept of an operational spaceport for private, as opposed to government, launch vehicles and payloads was a tiny patch of concrete in the New Mexico desert across the San Andres Mountains from the White Sands Missile Range command center. Here, at Spaceport America, on September 25, 2006, UP Aerospace (UPA), a private rocket company based in Connecticut, attempted its first commercial launch. Because Spaceport America does not yet have its spaceport license, UP Aerospace obtained FAA approval to launch from temporary facilities.

The story began the night before, at the “Mission Safety Briefing” held at the Hilton Las Cruces, which, even though it was some 100 miles from the launch site, was serving as UPA mission headquarters. The mood was giddy. Not once at the safety briefing was the word “safety” mentioned. Mostly, the event gave UPA the opportunity to introduce its launch crew and allowed the company’s college, high school, and elementary school clients to describe their science payloads. Colleges in New Mexico, Connecticut, and Colorado were flying experiment packages, such as a three-axis accelerometer, a magnetometer, and a Geiger counter, among other things. Two fifth-grade students, Alison and Lydia from Farnsworth Aerospace Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota, had placed three wristwatches—two analog and one digital—aboard to find out which type would better survive microgravity, reentry, landing, and the 13 Gs of liftoff. In all, there were about 40 payloads inside the SpaceLoft XL-1 rocket, a 20-foot-long, 10-inch-wide craft that would be shot into the blue the following day.

Next morning, members of the media, UPA clients, and guests left the hotel at about 3:30 a.m. for the 100-mile drive to the VIP viewing area, which was about three miles from the launch site. The site itself consisted of little more than a concrete launch pad, the launcher rail (called “T Rex”), and a couple of modular structures functioning as the vehicle’s final assembly building and the launch control center.

Arriving at the viewing area in temperatures just above freezing, launch-goers could see faint traces of dawn behind the San Andres range to the east. Launch time was set for 7:30 a.m. Well before then, Rick Homans, New Mexico’s state secretary for economic development who was acting as master of ceremonies, announced over the PA system that the rocket’s transponder wasn’t working. The transponder was essential for recovering the payload: The vehicle had no guidance system; the rocket, aimed a few degrees from vertical, would be launched ballistically, like a cannonball. The plan was for the rocket to reach Mach 5 in 13 seconds, then coast to its target altitude of 70 miles. At that point, the nosecone would separate from the body of the rocket, parachutes would deploy, and both sections would come down gently within a 20-mile-wide area somewhere in the White Sands Missile Range, which would track the thing by radar. The entire flight was to take approximately 13 minutes. However, fixing the transponder required the removal and replacement of 72 bolts.

Hours later the transponder is working. During the delay, UPA’s commercial clients take the chance to describe their payloads. A Las Cruces company, Heavenly Journeys, is flying the ashes of a veterinarian whose widow is attending the launch. Another firm is flying ingredients for an energy drink. There are other oddments—a plastic bag of 12 Cheerios, for one—all tucked away inside pizza-shaped payload containers.

As the final countdown nears, launch time shifts back and forth from 2:05 to 2:15 with no explanation. Reuters is here, ABC, Fox News, National Public Radio, Associated Press, a French film crew, local reporters—there’s probably more media here than customers—millions of cameras on tripods to record the flight that is to inaugurate the revolutionary, paradigm-shifting, historic era of public access to space.

At last the rocket gets away. Watching it is a thrilling experience: a point of dazzling white light followed by a contrail straight as a knife edge and as bright as if it were illuminated from the inside. Then, suddenly, the contrail becomes a corkscrew, and I’m immediately reminded of the Challenger disaster. In a few more seconds, although everybody is still looking skyward at the twisting track of rocket exhaust, it’s announced over the PA system that, barely three minutes into the flight, the rocket is back on the ground.

Back on the ground?

An Associated Press story filed five days later described the SpaceLoft XL rocket as “the first launched from a commercial spaceport in New Mexico—and the first to crash.” That was not in the least surprising. At the post-flight briefing, held the same night back at the Hilton, Lonnie Sumpter, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, who had also acted as the flight’s launch director, said: “Forty-six percent of first launches suffer a failure.”

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