Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

NM Leads in Space

SANTA FE – A commercial space flight bill, passed in the final minutes of the recently-adjourned Congress, has Gov. Bill Richardson very excited.
The governor says the legislation is designed to help promote the emerging commercial space flight industry by putting it on a more solid regulatory footing. Since New Mexico is very much a leader in that cutting-edge industry, it is a real victory.
Personally, I’m not sure how much “solid regulatory footing” we really need. We were already doing quite well, having attracted the X Prize Cup competition, and thereby, the attention of numerous space-related businesses without having the regulation the governor is so happy about.
But Richardson thinks the government regulation amounts to a federal acknowledgement that private space flight is now legitimate, and thus, the communities now recruiting space business can be off and running. Communities mentioned by Richardson are the counties of Sierra, Otero, Dona Ana and Chaves.
The Governor’s Office also announced it will introduce legislation in the upcoming session to establish the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. It probably will issue regulations too. New Mexico currently has an Office of Space Commercialization that encourages space-related development. Peter Mitchell is the latest in a long list of directors of that agency.
We also have learned that the X Prize event to be held next summer at White Sands Missile Range will be called a Public Spaceflight Exposition and will be a week-long event. X Prize Cup competition will begin in the summer of 2006, when it is expected other companies will be ready to provide some competition for Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne that captured the $20 million X Prize this year.
New Mexico hopes to have its Southwest Regional Spaceport, adjacent to the missile range, ready for that competition, which also will run a full week.
Meanwhile, almost next door, Holloman Air Force Base, in Alamogordo, celebrated the 50th anniversary of Col. John P. Stapp’s first rocket sled ride. The sled was fired down a 3,500-foot track, reaching a top speed of 632 miles per hour in 5 seconds and then slamming to a stop in 1.4 seconds, sustaining a deceleration force of 43 Gs.
The test earned the Air Force doctor the title of the fastest man on earth. He took 29 of those rides over the next two years, providing engineers the data necessary design crash protection for automobiles, aircraft and space vehicles. The sled is now on display at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo. Last week’s reenactment used a dummy.
Also in space news, Congress included the full amount requested by President Bush in the gigantic appropriation bill passed last month. The president requested more than $2 billion to begin implementation of his ambitious space-exploration program that would result in moon bases and manned exploration of Mars.
Unlike the commercial space plan, which will move quickly and with an eye on costs, the federal program is projected at hundreds of billions of dollars and to take 30 years. Burt Rutan may make it to Mars before NASA.
In a rare display of global mindedness, the president is seeking foreign partners for his project in order to cut costs and avoid needless duplication of effort. Seventeen countries were convinced to send representatives to a planning conference in Washington last week. How much participation in decision-making Bush is willing to give other countries may determine their willingness to join the effort.
At present several countries already are working on a space program. These include the European Space Agency, Japan, India and China, all of which have designs for moon bases.
Many in the scientific community do not share NASA’s enthusiasm for manned space flights. They believe too many resources are devoted to using astronauts to do jobs robots can do better. They would rather see that money spent on basic research.


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