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2015-01-09

This is an article about launching rockets at Spaceport America, in southern New Mexico. The players include the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, Spaceport America, FLARE, and the 2014 New Mexico Summer Teachers Institute.

In March of 2014 I got a call from a committee of educators at the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium (NMSGC) with questions about our availability to launch scientific payloads to be built by a group of teachers attending a workshop in Truth or Consequences. The call came a week before the workshop and, although I tried to pull together enough resources to conduct the launch, we had to decline. I did try to establish an expectation that in future FLARE members would be willing to build High Power Rocket (HPR) kits for the NMSGC and provide launch services at cost.

So in early November I got another call. The target was for March 2015 and we were talking about building HPR rockets for a launch and oh, would we be interested in launching at Spaceport America? Darn tootin' we would! I was asked to develop a proposal. My assumptions at this point were: 1) Payloads weighing ~8 oz each, 2) Teachers participating, 3) Private launch. I proposed that we should build up to six HPR rockets and specified the PML 1/2 scale Patriot Missile. This is kit is 7.5" in diameter and 100" tall. Options are available for fiberglassed body tubes and a 14" payload bay. This proposal went through a few minor revisions, and I had an initial teleconference with Pat Hynes to discuss options and capabilities.

Another story about a relationship we (FLARE) are developing with Spaceport America: Over the summer Daniel Giron, our PR director and treasurer was contacted by Aaron Proscott, who is the Business Operations Manager for Spaceport America. Aaron was interested in developing a facility at Spaceport based on the Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) facility in the Mohave Desert. Aaron and I spoke in August and he asked us for a proposal for the HPR launch facility. In July, Aaron had visited the SMRA launch field outside of Alamogordo and spoken with Hugh Malcolm, president of the Spaceport Model Rocketry Association. Aaron was impressed with the field and operations. So the proposal that I wrote with Joe Pfieffer (secretary of FLARE and HPR rocketeer) is based on the layout of the SMRA field with some minor improvements and a larger array of launch stands.

Aaron is thinking in terms of a three to five year timeline to develop this facility, to be operated by New Mexico rocketeers, for education and amateur rocketry. This proposal is available on request.

Back to November. An Anteres rocket blew up, and Spaceship 2 disintegrated over the Mojave Desert. Both were a shock, but the second event was dire news for Spaceport America. The Spaceport has many critics, and has been running at a deficit, despite three paying tenants. The lease arrangements help, but flights are the bread and butter of the business.

Virgin Galactic is on hold. SpaceX has a lease, contract, and built facilities to test it's Falcon 9 launch-to-landing capabilities at Spaceport, but the grasshopper test vehicle suffered a failure in August. So SpaceX is apparently on hold. Meanwhile, SpaceX are focused on landing an actual Falcon 9 on a purpose built ship in the Atlantic in January. I suspect that this act, if successful, may obviate further testing at Spaceport America.

I don't have any special knowledge on these subjects. I only know what I learn from a casual collection of Google Alerts. I am following these stores rather carefully because, well, I am a rocketeer interested in all things spacefareing.

The third tenant at Spaceport is UP Aerospace. They launch rockets to ~70mi (113km) which is around the recognized boundary of space. They average (according to Pat Hynes) one launch every year and a half. Much of their funding is provided by NASA, for specific launch services including educational programs. They had been launching student payloads until 2013. This program is run by the NMSGC and is called the Student Launch Program (SLP). UP Aerospace launched one more small set of payloads, along with some commercial and/or NASA research components, in 2014. According to the Albuquerque Journal, the NMSGC has been paying $110-120,000 for each SLP launch. (I attended one in 2011, where FLARE member David Kovar, myself, and my son Arthur set up a display of historic models on behalf of FLARE.) Again based on an article in the Albuquerque Journal, changing NASA funding priorities brought and end to the funding for these launches.

I suppose that UP Aerospace is not a source of much revenue to the Spaceport. Following the recent air disaster all of New Mexico, who have been waiting for Virgin to fly out of Spaceport since 2010, inhaled sharply. How much longer should we stand for the Spaceport operating at a loss? Why are there no other tenants, and what are we doing to attract more? Will the facility become a 21st century ghost town? I do not agree with the assumptions of these questions, but I also see valid issues with the current management.

On November 18th I joined a teleconference with all parties, and by the end of the hour-long discussion I learned that the role FLARE was being asked to take on the role of launching student payloads on High Power Rockets at Spaceport America.

At this point, my initial proposal fell well short of that Mark. Friend and fellow rocketeer John DeMar had seen some of this conversation, but he was working out in California and i did not want to burden him with this project until he wrapped up and came back home. He did come back a few days later, and he had bigger ideas for this project than those I had developed.

The scope of the project is now focused on six rockets, eight inches in diameter and fourteen feet tall. They are all fiberglass construction and have separate bays for flight electronics and student payloads. We are aiming for 16-18,000ft AGL with five or six student payloads per flight. The target date is April 25, 2015. Paraphrasing Pat Hynes of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium: We need to show the taxpayers of southern New Mexico, and the world, that the Spaceport is up and running. FLARE can help us do that.

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