LAS CRUCES – With commercial space activity growing and new startups in the industry, Las Cruces is looking for ways to attract more aerospace investment to the region – including what role the urban airport could play in this.
Las Cruces International Airport, originally built as a military airfield during World War II and moved to the city in 1955, is working on an updated master plan, a requirement for its certification with the Federal Aviation Administration, and a guide to urban planning as the facility considers brief – and long-term needs, including economic development opportunities.
As airport administrator Andy Hume puts it, the plan “ensures that the parts you need to grow are either there or, if not, how we get them in place”.
A new focus of the airport’s master plan will be aerospace and what improvements could be made to the airport to make Las Cruces more attractive to the industry as commercial activity is expected to spike over the next year at Spaceport America 80 miles north of the city will.
While the spaceport is best known for its anchor tenant, space company Virgin Galactic, other tenants and customers are also active in the remote facility outside of Truth or Consequences, including UP Aerospace, SpinLaunch, and HAPSMobile / Aerovironment.
Hume tells the Las Cruces Sun-News that the latest master plan, passed in 2018, did not evaluate the proximity of the spaceport or the growth of the aerospace industry, despite Virgin Galactic having a “fairly steady presence” at the airport and engineers between Las. Fly Cruces and its manufacturing base in Mojave, California.
A master plan update advisor said in an interview that Las Cruces is already “on the map” for the US aerospace industry and is well positioned to attract more companies involved in manufacturing and supply chains for the growing satellite and reusable missile industries are involved.
James Bennett, chief regulatory officer of aerospace technology company Immortal Data, said Las Cruces made a name for itself in the minds of space entrepreneurs in 2006 when it hosted the rocket and moon landing exhibition and the X Prize Cup competition. At this point, the construction of the spaceport in Sierra County had already begun.
Immortal Data, which is developing a data system payload to be launched by UP Aerospace, has had an office at Las Cruces Airport since 2019 when it was relocated by Mojave.
The company is now subcontracting the master plan update being prepared by engineering and consulting firm Dubois and King.
“We believe there is a chance,” said Bennett.
However, there is some catching up to do in public capital investments. Private sector money is moving much faster and developments are accelerating.
Virgin Galactic made its first two crewed flights to the edge of space over New Mexico this year, and rival Blue Origin has also flown passengers into space twice from its facility near Van Horn, Texas. SpaceX is flying human crews to the International Space Station ISS for the space agency NASA and may be testing a new prototype for orbital flights as early as November.
There is also great interest in satellite and rocket technology. Bennett commented, “I think I see a new start-up every week these days,” added that an estimated 120 companies around the world are designing or building launch vehicles. While most of these startups are expected to disappear, he said the industry will stay here.
That means commercial space companies are actively looking for optimal locations to take root, and Bennett said Las Cruces has a valuable foothold.
“It’s economics because the running costs are low,” he said. “It has a good university on site and three or four good universities with aerospace talent within a few hours. They have an incubator (at New Mexico State University) that is very commercial and space savvy. These are all good ingredients. “
The question for this master plan update, he said, is whether Las Cruces airport could become the new Mojave airport, offering a similarly convenient access point for transferring new technology to rapid turnaround tests or commercial operations at the spaceport.
The airport borders a commercial area and completed important road improvements a year ago. There are three runways that can accommodate arrivals and departures in six directions.
However, one of them requires maintenance, and Hume said the city hopes to extend the length of the other two to 8,600 feet and 10,500 feet, respectively.
This would accommodate heavier aircraft, including commercial passenger aircraft take-offs from the airport.
Hume explained that jets currently loaded with passengers land at the airport but can only take off empty according to FAA regulations.
Both men said the schedule update will present city officials with an assessment of potential investments that will serve the needs of the industry, financial risks and strategic priorities for attracting private sector investments. Bennett said the planning document will present policy makers with a phased plan for immediate needs as well as 5 and 10 year positioning plans for regional aerospace activities.
“It’s looked at by some die-hard people who ask the tough questions, and we want to make sure we have a well-studied range of options,” said Bennett.