The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

X Prize Cup illustration
The X Prize Foundation and the state of New Mexico hope that the X Prize Cup wil draw large crowds to southern New Mexico to witness commercial suborbital spaceflight competitions. (credit: X Prize Foundation)

Spaceport New Mexico and the X Prize Cup

On June 21 of last year something extraordinary happened. A 63-year-old test pilot by the name of Mike Melvill took a small craft called SpaceShipOne to an altitude of 100 kilometers; he had reached the official edge of space. The flight was front-page news around the world, and was not without its share of drama. Seven seconds after launch a wind gust sent the craft on an unexpected 90-degree roll, and shortly after Melvill fired the craft’s hybrid rocket, a trim motor malfunctioned and sent him off course. Still, he was able to exceed 5 Gs of acceleration and reach a speed of Mach 2.9. He also became an astronaut.

Few people can put “astronaut” on their résumé, even now in the early 21st century, but Melvill’s accomplishment was even more unique: He was the first human being to fly into space in a ship built without a single penny of government money. Space, once reserved for wealthy governments, was now accessible to the private citizen. Space travel’s not just about NASA anymore.

What launched Melvill and SpaceShipOne into space was the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The prize was offered to the first team to travel into space twice in less than a week in a privately funded spaceship. More than two dozen other teams from around the world were making a stab at the X Prize when Burt Rutan’s team flew their winning flight, and all of them have, combined, invested millions in the dream of private spaceflight. The big question now is, what happens next, not just for the other X Prize contenders, but also for the newborn private spaceflight industry? The state of New Mexico’s Office for Space Commercialization and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis think they have the answer: the X Prize Cup.

A 21st century space race

As envisioned by Diamandis, the X Prize Cup will be an annual event showcasing the fledgling commercial spaceflight industry. Now that New Mexico has been chosen to host the cup, teams from around the world will come to a brand new spaceport in southern New Mexico, to be called the Southwest Regional Spaceport, to compete for prizes and points in five categories: maximum altitude, most passengers in one flight, most passengers carried during the Cup, fastest turn-around time, and fastest flight from takeoff to landing. There will also be a few spectator-friendly categories like coolest ship. The aerospace team with the most points at the end of the two-week event will win the Cup, much like yachting teams win the America’s Cup based on total points. The concept is not that different than New Mexico’s annual—and extremely profitable—International Balloon Fiesta, only at a considerably higher altitude.

The event will be open to the public, and will coincide with a Public Spaceflight Exhibition, which will include educational outreach and information on the competitors as well as on other private spaceflight companies. The models for the X Prize Cup are highly successful events such as the Paris Air Show, the America’s Cup yacht races, and the Experimental Aircraft Association’s popular annual airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

“This year’s Countdown to the X Prize Cup is the important first step in creating an event that will not only assist in opening the space frontier to all private citizens, but will… help brand New Mexico as the place to be to experience the future,” said Gov. Bill Richardson.

As announced by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson on April 13, the first event will be called Countdown to the X Prize Cup. This first event will have demonstration flights of future X Prize Cup contenders, including preview flights of the “Tier-1 X Prize Rocket Racer”. There will also be static displays of the X Prize team vehicles, flight simulations, and the chance to visit with the test pilots, spacecraft designers, and team leaders. There will also be an “Education Day” at the Space History Museum, with over 2,000 students participating. During the event there will be weightless parabolic flights by Zero Gravity Corporation’s G-Force One. The Countdown will be held from October 4th through October 9th of this year and will take place at the White Sands Missile Range, the Las Cruces International Airport, and the Alamogordo Space History Museum.

During the April 13th press conference Gov. Richardson said, “This year’s Countdown to the X Prize Cup is the important first step in creating an event that will not only assist in opening the space frontier to all private citizens, but will… help brand New Mexico as the place to be to experience the future.” Diamandis, who also attended the conference, said “The X Prize Foundation is thrilled to be partners with the citizens of New Mexico in creating what will become the premiere space event of the 21st Century as we launch the personal spaceflight revolution.”

The first actual Cup, X Prize Cup 2006, is planned for next fall, and will be held on the White Sands Missile Range. White Sands has agreed to be the interim spaceport for the Cup until the new spaceport is ready. Starting in either the fall of 2007 or 2008, the full X Prize Cup will be held at the newly built Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham, New Mexico (about 75 kilometers north of Las Cruces and 50 kilometers east of Truth or Consequences). Currently Upham is just a big, flat empty space on the map, which is exactly what is needed for a new spaceport.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to be partnered with New Mexico,” X Prize Foundation spokesperson Diane Murphy said. “New Mexico understands the importance of the X Prize Cup, and they realize that this new industry needs to be nurtured and fostered if it is to move forward.”

“The Countdown to the X Prize Cup begins a new era for New Mexico,” Rick Homans said at the April 13th press conference. “It puts us on the ground floor of the whole new commercial space travel industry.” Homans is New Mexico’s Economic Development Secretary. New Mexico Tourism Secretary Michael Cerletti added, “The Annual X Prize Cup has the potential to be an event of global importance, bringing visitors and visibility for New Mexico from around the world. The planet will be watching as we reach for the stars.”

The potential

The X Prize Cup sounds like science fiction at first glance: an annual event, open to the public, where privately funded spacecraft, with pilots, will be taking off for space. It is a big idea, fraught with the potential for delays, financial disaster, or worse; the kind of project that is just begging for criticism from skeptics and nay-sayers. It is also the kind of project that, if it can be pulled off, will bring public access and excitement to millions of spaceflight fans year after year, not to mention bringing aerospace companies to New Mexico. This is exactly the kind of high-tech business the state of New Mexico has been courting; only in this case we are talking very high tech, 100 kilometers high.

Diamandis has a long track record of proving nay-sayers wrong. When he proposed a $10-million prize for the first privately funded team to reach space by the end of 2004, the skeptics said that the goal was impossible, that no aerospace team would try, that even if a team won nobody would bankroll the prize, that even if it was bankrolled it would never capture the imagination of the public. However, Diamandis is a driven man, and he had a model, the Orteig Prize.

It is a big idea, fraught with the potential for delays, financial disaster, or worse; the kind of project that is just begging for criticism from skeptics and nay-sayers.

In the 1920s private aviation was in its infancy, much like the private space industry is today. A group of investors in St. Louis wanted to foster both aviation innovation and public excitement, so they created the Orteig Prize, $10,000—worth over $110,000 today—to the first pilot to solo across the Atlantic. In 1927 Charles Lindbergh won that prize, wrote himself forever into the history books, and helped start private aviation down the path to becoming a multi-billion dollar, not to mention essential, piece of the world economy. Diamandis’ X Prize may very well have done the same thing last year: it turns out that, despite the nay-sayers, there were competitors, there was a winner, and there was a bankroller for the prize, Anousheh and Amir Ansari. There was also excitement: the flights of SpaceShipOne became one of the top news items of 2004, gracing the covers of many publications.

The support for the X Prize Cup from the state of New Mexico has been surprisingly strong, especially coming from a state that, until recently, was not exactly known as visionary. New Mexico has had an Office for Space Commercialization since 1994, which until the current administration has been a minor part of the New Mexico Economic Development Office, working to bring aerospace firms such as Lockheed Martin to the state. They have also slowly but steadily been working through the regulatory hurdles of creating the Southwest Regional Spaceport.

In January of 2004 that slow and steady progress became more of a headlong rush. New Mexico put in its bid to host the newly conceived X Prize Cup, and in short order had knocked out other bidders like Oklahoma and California and become a finalist with Florida. On May 11th, 2004 New Mexico officially won the bid, prompting Florida Today to report this quote from Winston Scott, director of the Florida Space Authority: “Florida doesn’t have a lock on its pre-eminent position. Other states are nipping at our heels.” quoted Diamandis as saying that New Mexico won the bid “specifically on the strength of their proposal and their financial support.”

“New Mexico has emphatically established itself as a worldwide leader in space commercialization,” Gov. Richardson said when he announced that New Mexico had won the bid. He also announced that the state legislature had committed $9 million to begin work on the infrastructure of the Southwest Regional Spaceport; $4 million for the launch and landing facilities and $5 million for the planning and operations of the X Prize Cup itself. This year the legislature created the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, which will build and operate the Southwest Regional Spaceport, and allocated an additional $1 million in capital outlay funds.

Diamandis was clearly thrilled with New Mexico’s bid. “Governor Richardson is personally very excited about the whole space business and about building New Mexico into a central hub for public spaceflight,” Diamandis said on a press release from the NM Economic Development Dept. “The X Prize Cup is coming to New Mexico because of the tremendous collaborative support we have received from the governor, New Mexico Legislature, New Mexico Office of Space Commercialization and White Sands Missile Range.”

The NM Economic Development Dept. has projected that the spaceport could potentially generate $500 million a year, and annual tax revenues could reach $20 million. Considering New Mexico collected $101 million in corporate tax in fiscal year 2003, that’s a healthy injection of funds.

New Mexico has a lot more going for it than just the governor’s enthusiasm, however. The Upham area where the Southwest Regional Spaceport is to be built is a near-ideal location for both the X Prize Cup and for future commercial launches, manned and unmanned. It’s near White Sands Missile Range, in an area with a low population density, a lack of launch restrictions, and a large controlled airspace: three essentials for flight safety. At its 1,400-meter elevation, with its low latitude, level land, and consistently clear weather, Upham is favorably positioned for all desirable orbital inclinations. Upham is a far better site for spaceport customers than the coast of Florida: Florida’s unpredictable and violent weather often wreaks havoc on critical launch schedules, its infrastructure is aging and desperately needs upgrading, and its damp, salt-laden air is notoriously hard on the rockets themselves.

Future plans for the Southwest Regional Spaceport go far beyond being simply the site for an annual aerospace showcase. If things go as planned by the Office for Space Commercialization, it will eventually include a full launch complex, a 3,600-meter runway and aviation facility, a payload assembly complex, and other site infrastructure. With such a launch alternative to Florida and California available in the southwest, the NM Economic Development Dept. has projected that the spaceport could potentially generate $500 million a year, and annual tax revenues could reach $20 million. Considering New Mexico collected $101 million in corporate tax in fiscal year 2003, according to the Tax Foundation, that’s a healthy injection of funds. The Office for Space Commercialization is working on spaceport licensing with the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, has prepared and presented environmental impact statements, and has in place cooperative agreements with White Sands Missile Range. The idea of an inland spaceport in Upham, New Mexico is more than just a dream; it is fast becoming a reality.

New Mexico has always been involved in humanity’s quest for the realms of space, and the planned X Prize Cup is only the latest chapter in a rich history. Robert Goddard perfected his liquid-fueled rockets in New Mexico in the 1920’s, and in 1947 Wernher von Braun launched the first rocket to reach space from White Sands. The work by von Braun’s team earned White Sands the nickname “Birthplace of the Race to Space.” It makes perfect sense that the next space race will start from the same desert.

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