The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ISDC 2024

Spaceport America
New Mexico’s Spaceport America, developed with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant, is far different than what was earlier proposed as the Southwest Regional Spaceport. (credit: Spaceport America)

From Southwest Regional Spaceport to Spaceport America

Bookmark and Share

As a space economist with a long interest in commercial spaceports, I was among hundreds of spectators parked along the tracks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in southern New Mexico on May 22, 2021. We came to witness the first crewed flight into suborbital space from Spaceport America. The facility lies some 80 kilometers north of Las Cruces, home to New Mexico State University and its Physical Science Laboratory that was founded in 1946.[1] PSL’s ground-breaking research has shaped the nation’s space and rocket programs for more than three quarters of a century.

The delay put another kink in the economic development New Mexico once planned for the spaceport, a dream of revenue that would rescue this depressed pocket of the Chihuahua Desert.

Most of the crowd along the railroad tracks that spring day were from the local counties that had funded Spaceport America in 2007. Having heard about the launch on the news, these New Mexico taxpayers were here to witness the inaugural event and see where their tax dollars went. The spur road to the spaceport itself was blocked off by a couple of State Police cars. Spaceport America only permits the public to observe launches at a distance, in this case a couple kilometers from the entrance to the facility where Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic launches its spaceplane.

Through my binoculars, at a distance, I witnessed the takeoff of SpaceShipTwo. Its carrier aircraft, White Knight Two, climbed to an altitude whereby the spaceplane would drop from the belly of the carrier aircraft and begin the journey to the edge of space. When White Knight Two reached the drop point high overhead, I saw the flame of the exhaust from the spaceplane’s engine after it separated from the carrier aircraft and took the test crew on their suborbital trip into space.

The 2021 flight of Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane was in contrast to the launch of SpaceShipOne I saw on June 21, 2004, at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. SpaceShipOne was a precursor vehicle designed by Scaled Composites and, when it soared into the skies above the Mojave Desert, I was among the 20,000 spectators welcomed on the field with excellent parking accommodations.[2] The public along the runway could easily observe the flight of the spaceplane from takeoff to landing. We were not relegated to a desolate desert road as at Spaceport America.

After that 2021 launch, Branson promised hundreds more launches from Spaceport America. In the future his “spaceliner” planned to carry passengers in this new form of extreme adventure tourism. However, in November 2023 Virgin Galactic announced that SpaceShipTwo was no longer going to make “hundreds of flights” but only a handful more before the company again pauses launch operations in 2024.[3] Virgin Galactic’s current aim is to replace SpaceShipTwo with a new larger “Delta” class spacecraft.[4] The delay put another kink in the economic development New Mexico once planned for the spaceport, a dream of revenue that would rescue this depressed pocket of the Chihuahua Desert.

My involvement in Spaceport America began 30 years earlier when, as a Ph.D. candidate at New Mexico State University, I was assigned to work on the initial feasibility study for what was known then as the “Southwest Regional Spaceport” (SRS). That study envisioned a very different spaceport from the one operating today. Instead of a facility built around an anchor client, Virgin Galactic, whose business is based on the transport of tourists into suborbital space, back in 1991 SRS was supposed to be the flagship of New Mexico’s space industry and that began in 1930 when rocket pioneer Dr. Robert Goddard moved his research out here.

Goddard’s research led to the eventual creation of the White Sands Missile Range. The US Army in World War II had captured V-2 rockets in Germany and were testing them at White Sands. Tests of additional rockets, like the new Corporal Rocket developed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), followed in that postwar decade. Soon Hollywood began incorporating footage from rocket test flights in their science fiction movies. In the minds of the public, White Sands came to be synonymous with the idea of spaceflight, a result of its popularization in cinema.

Instead of a facility built around an anchor client, Virgin Galactic, whose business is based on the transport of tourists into suborbital space, back in 1991 Southwest Regional Spaceport was supposed to be the flagship of New Mexico’s space industry.

To support the Army’s rocket tests at White Sands, the Physical Science Laboratory (PSL) was created in 1946 at New Mexico State University. In that same period, Sandia National Laboratory (SNL) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Albuquerque were also created as spinoffs of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Although focused originally on nuclear weapons research, both SNL and AFRL quickly expanded their research to include rockets and space technology. When these entities are combined with New Mexico’s three major universities--the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and New Mexico State University—such research centers as a constellation represent a substantial capability for space research and development.

The original feasibility study intended the “Southwest Regional Spaceport” to be a hub integrating and focusing these aforementioned research centers, a nucleus for the space commerce industry. The SRS, acting as fulcrum, would implement the strategy to advance New Mexico’s visibility in space research and development. The facility was to be an incubator for advanced space technology, not a launching pad for a handful of suborbital space tourists.

Even though New Mexico Spaceport Authority is today doing business with several private aerospace firms that develop technology at Spaceport America, these efforts are a distant second to Richard Branson’s space tourism now flying suborbital customers. Spaceport America’s operations bear little evidence of any strategic integration with New Mexico’s space industry, the origins of which began with Dr. Robert Goddard in the 1930s during those hard times of the Great Depression.

A second focus of the original dream in the feasibility study was for the spaceport to serve a statewide strategy to improve STEM education. When the study was completed, New Mexico was ranked near the bottom in the United States in STEM educational performance and it has continued to decline, reaching the bottom of the rankings in 2022.[5] In so much as kids are attracted to rockets and space exploration, the creation of a New Mexico Space Academy at the spaceport was intended to inspire students in science and math. The curriculum would create instructional programs that explore outer space and its settlement.

Despite the fact New Mexico Spaceport Authority today sponsors a popular nationwide educational event, the intercollegiate Spaceport America Cup, this competition pales in the context of the original 1990’s plan to use the spaceport for boosting interest in STEM education throughout the state.

Finally, though the revenue projections for the spaceport included space tourism, that did not mean a handful of individuals flying into space, individuals who only briefly set foot on the soil on New Mexico before and after their space adventure. Instead, the focus was on the tens of thousands of terrestrial tourists that travel across the nation to view rocket launches and visit space launch facilities.

The crowds lining that deserted road along the railroad tracks to watch Virgin Galactic fly in 2021, though far from the gates of Spaceport America, proves the spaceport has the potential to generate revenue based on terrestrial tourism. Yet how can any revenue result when the nearest restaurant or souvenir stand is almost an hour away from where tourists are parking to view the launch? Yes, there is the official Spaceport America Visitors Center in Truth or Consequences, the nearest town. But by the time tourists reach this little community, the travelers’ only thought is to hit the Interstate and return home after experiencing the desolation of parking along the old El Camino Real (Royal Road) cutoff through the Jornada del Muerto (The Route of Death), a road so isolated even mobile phone coverage is hit-or-miss.

Spaceport America began as New Mexico’s dream to integrate and promote its space industry to grow the state’s economy. Instead, it got lost in this detour into suborbital space tourism.

Since the 2021 launches Spaceport America has reportedly added a viewing area that allows visitors to watch the Virgin Galactic flights.[6] The fact that such a decision was made so late in the life of the spaceport makes one wonder if the leadership behind the facility ever consulted the economic impact studies of the past. Those projections of the economic impact included terrestrial tourism, but those studies assumed there would be opportunities for spending at concessions for food and souvenirs. Finally, any spaceport that has the word “America” in its name implies a caveat, an open invitation to visitors who hope to witness firsthand these historic flights.

Recently the New Mexico Spaceport Authority has contracted with another out-of-state consulting firm to create a new “Master Plan and Strategy” for Spaceport America.[7] I am not holding my breath that it will be any better than studies in the past that forecast numerous launches and promised a great future for Spaceport America. Nor am I holding my breath that Spaceport America will return soon to flying space tourists with the new and improved “Delta” class spaceplane, given Sir Richard Branson’s recent decision to invest no more of his capital in Virgin Galactic.[8] . It is a truism in the space industry that spacecraft always take more time and money to develop than expected and Virgin Galactic’s supply of both may be questionable.

Spaceport America began as New Mexico’s dream to integrate and promote its space industry to grow the state’s economy. Instead, it got lost in this detour into suborbital space tourism. The best hope for revitalizing the New Mexico space industry and its search for expansion lies in a return to the original vision, operating the spaceport as the flagship of an integrated New Mexico strategy for space rather than as an isolated facility lost in the vastness of the Jornada del Muerto.


  1. Physical Science Laboratory, New Mexico State university (2024). “History of PSL”. Retrieved on February 10, 2024.
  2. Webber, Derek (2004). “The future starts here”. The Space Review. Retrieved February 10.
  3. Foust, Jeff (November 8, 2023). “Virgin Galactic to halt Unity suborbital flights by mid-2024”. SpaceNews. Retrieved on February 10, 2024.
  4. Foust, Jeff (November 2, 2022). “Virgin Galactic picks suppliers for future spaceplanes”. SpaceNews. Retrieved on February 10, 2024.
  5. New Mexico Education (24 October 2022). “New Mexico ranks dead last nationally on NAEP test results”. Retrieved on February 10, 2024.
  6. Madrid, Salina (July 13, 2021). “Spaceport America to add viewing area for public to watch spaceships blast off in-person”. KFOX-TV El Paso, Texas. Retrieved on February 12, 2024 from
  7. McGerald, Jennifer Nix (May 11, 2023). “New Mexico’s Spaceport America Awards Spaceport Master Plan Project to the RS&H Team”. Retrieved on February 10, 2024./li>
  8. Georgiadis, Philip and Hollinger, Peggy (December 2, 2023). “No further investments in Virgin Galactic, says Richard Branson”. Financial Times. Retrieved on February 10, 2024.

Note: we are now moderating comments. There will be a delay in posting comments and no guarantee that all submitted comments will be posted.