Inside the Capitol

Sunday, July 04, 2004

X-Prize Lures Business to NM

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE – It was a big day for New Mexico when Rick Homans and Peter Mitchell watched Bert Rutan’s SpaceShipOne soar to the edge of space on June 21.
But June 22 was an even bigger day for New Mexico when Homans announced that England-based Starchaser Industries will open offices in Las Cruces and soon begin hiring locals for good-paying, high tech jobs.
Homans is secretary of the state Economic Development Department, who chased after and won the X-Prize competition for New Mexico. When that happened in May, Homans promised that economic opportunities would follow. But even he had no idea they would begin so quickly.
When Gov. Bill Richardson held a news conference to announce that New Mexico had won the competition to host the X-Prize Cup, Dr. Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X-Prize Foundation said that many X-Prize competitors will choose to move their company operations to New Mexico where the yearly competitions will be held.
Starchaser Industries is the leading rocket firm in the United Kingdom, with 14 out of 16 launches being 100 percent successful. It plans to launch its Thunderstar reusable launch vehicle within the next 18 months, in plenty of time for New Mexico’s first X-Prize competition in 2006.
That will put it behind Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, which reached the 62-mile altitude, considered the entry to space, on June 21. But before Rutan and Paul Allen, who has financed the $20 million operation, can claim the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, their vehicle must carry three people back to space, return safely and do it again within two weeks. Diamandis says he expects someone to do it before the summer is over.
Once that happens, everyone else will have a chance to catch up and be ready for the New Mexico X-Prize competitions, beginning in 2006. In the summer of 2005, Diamandis plans a space exhibition at the White Sands Missile Range launch facilities. By 2006, the private Southwest Regional Spaceport facility, just off the western edge of the missile range to be ready.
Peter Mitchell, director of the New Mexico Office of Space Commercialization, and Steve Vierck, president and CEO of the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance, took Starchaser officials on a fact-finding tour of the space facilities recently and convinced them that New Mexico is ready for them.
Planning is already underway for the 2006 competition. New Mexico’s regional spaceport will likely be up and running by then, 45 miles north of Las Cruces, near Upham. Planning for the site began more than a decade ago and is ready to switch into high gear, with $9 million appropriated by the 2004 Legislature.
Lest all this sound like a futuristic pipedream, consider that over 20 private companies from around the world have committed to be in the competition to see who can fly the highest, climb the fastest or launch a second flight the soonest after landing from the first. Many of those prizes are already funded.
Similar competitions a century ago helped the commercial aviation business get off the ground so quickly. Charles Lindbergh won the most prestigious of the prizes, with his flight to Paris, but there were many other competitions.
Who would want to be passengers on flights to the edge of space and how much would they pay? A Virginia-based company called Space Adventures, already has collected $10,000 deposits from over 100 would-be space tourists. For a list price of $102,000 rich thrill seekers can have a four-day preparation and training experience followed by a ride on a suborbital ship.
Space Adventures already has helped millionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth go into orbit aboard the international space station. Once private craft are able to reach orbit, the space station is a likely stop.
After that, it won’t be long before the floodgates begin to open, with weekend excursions in low earth orbit for a Club Med experience aboard orbiting cruise ships.


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