Less than 60 miles from New Mexico State University’s Las Cruces campus, the next phase of the commercial space race accomplished a major feat, and numerous Aggie graduates played a role.
Spaceport America, which is owned and operated by the State of New Mexico, hosted Virgin Galactic’s first commercial passenger spaceflight with Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson on board Unity 22 in July 2021.
As Virgin Galactic is slated to begin regular passenger spaceflights in 2022, Spaceport America Executive Director and 1989 NMSU graduate Scott McLaughlin said he is excited to watch the space tourism industry grow.
“Las Cruces, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and New Mexico State University are directly involved in the infancy of space tourism,” McLaughlin said. “I hope we find ways to make the most of it, such as new businesses that cater to space tourists, like 3D immersion screens and even things like a centrifuge or large immersion water tanks.”
The world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, Spaceport America has been launching vehicles into space since 2006. Spaceport America also is home to tenants such AeroVironment/HAPSMobile, UP Aerospace and SpinLaunch. Boeing, Swift Engineering, Stratodynamics, C6 Launch Systems, and White Sands Research and Developers are among the many customers. Spaceport America offers access to 6,000 square miles of restricted airspace, and can provide services such as telemetry, radar, optical tracking and weather forecasting.
McLaughlin believes the current environment provides significant opportunities for the NMSU community.
“Rarely when a new technology and industry grow do you find yourself right there at the ground floor with literally, and figuratively, the sky as the limit,” McLaughlin said. “All of us, and especially NMSU’s students and faculty, need to put our entrepreneurial thinking hats on, and realize we are an epicenter for not just space tourism, but for aerospace, too, especially when you think about the entire aerospace ecosystem present in the greater area. This is our moment, and we need to make the most of it. If we do not, other sites and other states will.”
As the anchor tenant at Spaceport America with two locations in Las Cruces, Virgin Galactic employs many NMSU graduates, including 2021 graduate Adam Flores, an associate structural design engineer.
“Space is a place only few have ever experienced; to become one of those few would be a dream come true,” Flores said. “Uncharted places come with unencountered challenges. I find it fulfilling to chase the challenges that no one or only few have ever been asked to solve.
“As we work to solve many of those problems to make spaceflight safe and reliable for the average person, it’s just a matter of time before you and I have the chance at becoming astronauts,” Flores said.
With the recent advances, McLaughlin said it’s not unthinkable for average New Mexicans to travel to space via Spaceport America in the next two decades.
“I think within 20 years, many will get a ride to space to work regular jobs like space agriculture, drug manufacturing, energy generation, and other industry processes that can only be done in a near weightless environment,” McLaughlin said.
A version of this story was first published in the fall 2021 issue of Panorama, NMSU’s alumni and friends magazine. To read the issue, visit https://panorama.nmsu.edu.