SPACEPORT AMERICA – A small group of onlookers pulled in alongside a barbed wire fence, with the spaceport’s unique dome just over the rise, a plane and spacecraft in the middle distance. Then, they waited.
It’s out of the way, just past mile marker 23 on Upham Road, situated in creosote and sagebrush scrublands, broken up by scraggly mesquite, and punctuated by blooming nightshade.
“Every now and again I keep lookin’ up to see if we can see the thing, but nothing yet,” said Jack Hartsfield, joined by his brother Bill on the tailgate of their truck. They drove from Las Cruces in the morning to catch the launch, scheduled for 8:00 a.m.
All eyes were on the sky, eventually.
Jack and Bill Hartsfield squint against the sun while waiting along the road to Spaceport America for the Virgin Galactic flight on May 25, 2023. The brothers drove up from Las Cruces to watch the event. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)
At 9:15, the crafts took off. Watchers followed the carrier plane’s progress for more than an hour on radar, exclaiming whenever it came back into view. At 44,500 feet, when it appeared as little more than a pinprick, the rocket engines pushed out a white plume, separating the spaceplane.
The spaceplane curlicued upward. Nearly a minute after the burn, the sonic boom rolled over the parking lot like a peal of thunder that just kept going.
The craft touched the edge of space after an apogee of 54 miles, according to the company. The spaceplane touched back down at the spaceport runway just past 10:35.
The company, headquartered in Mojave, California, said this flight is a precursor to monthly commercial flights. There’s a backlog of 800 ticket holders, some of which have been waiting for over a decade. Initially tickets cost $200,000 per person. The cost has more than doubled at $450,000 per person.
This is Virgin Galactic’s second fully manned flight, called Unity 25. The first was a May 2021 suborbital flight which included billionaire Richard Branson and five employees. While the company described that flight as “a success,” the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the company after an investigation found the rocket dipped below its airspace while returning to the ground. Virgin Galactic maintained there was no danger to any of the crew.
The company made changes to both the spaceplane and carrier aircraft, and conducted a glide flight in April. The next flight in June will host members of the Italian Air Force for a research mission.
Onlookers wait for the Virgin Galactic flight on May 25, 2023. The company said the flight is the final test before beginning commercial spaceflights from the Truth or Consequences-adjacent spaceport in June.
Also watching the flight was Sen. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) with her teen daughters and their friend.
“I do hope this is a successful launch, and that we can promote this as much as we can,” she said.
Diamond, who is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said some of her colleagues and at least half of her district are “ready to pull the plug,” on the spaceport.
“There’s a lot of frustrations, specifically from Sierra county, who did not see the return that was promised to them,” she said.
Virgin Galactic has been the project’s “anchor tenant,” since the spaceport’s conception. Spaceport America, was built for $220 million in taxpayer money between 2006 and 2012.
The Spaceport America facility captured May 25, 2023. The New Mexico Spaceport Authority is looking to build a new reception center and IT building, in addition to making upgrades to roads and other facilities. (Danielle Prokop / Source NM)
She said while she supports Virgin Galactic, she said there hasn’t been enough emphasis on the other aerospace and technology tenants. As the leases for the spaceport are up for negotiation this year, she is concerned the New Mexico Spaceport Authority is too dependent on Virgin Galactic.
“Every time we have spaceport before us, there isn’t a single legislator who does not stress to them the importance of recruiting and securing additional tenants,” she said. “We don’t want Virgin updates, we want Spaceport America updates.”
Recently, the agency put out a bid request for a new reception and Information Technology center.
Since 2018, the New Mexico legislature appropriated more than $55 million for multiple Spaceport capital outlay projects. More than $34 million went unspent, the Legislative Finance Committee noted in its April 2022 report. The most recent in May, report shows the agency spent $2.7 million down in the past quarter.
Diamond acknowledged there might be a lag in reporting, but said the agency will face questions in the interim and next session about its plans.
“This go around, they’re gonna be quizzed on why they haven’t spent that capital outlay money,” Diamond said.
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