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NM aerospace bigger than Virgin

link Tom McDonald

State columnist

On Halloween, a nightmare for the commercial space industry occurred. SpaceShipTwo, a craft designed to take people to the edge of space, apparently broke apart, killing one of its pilots and injuring the other.

The crash occurred in the Mojave Desert, where Virgin Galactic does its test flights.

As tragic as it was, it could have been worse if it had happened in New Mexico. This is where Virgin Galactic’s founder, Richard Branson, plans to launch space tours, with six paying customers per flight — from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

The Mojave crash is a sobering reminder that such tours are not only cutting edge, but contain a very real element of risk, too.

The first passenger flights — for tourists, not astronauts — were set to begin early next year, according to Branson a few weeks ago. When they’ll take place now is anyone’s guess.

At a press conference just hours after the crash, Branson seemed shaken by it all, saying that if they can figure out what went wrong and “can overcome it,” then maybe they’ll get back on track with their flight plans out of New Mexico.

And to make matters worse, the crash came just three days after a launch-pad explosion in Virginia involving an unmanned commercial craft that was to carry cargo to the International Space Station. Needless to say, it was a tough week for the privatized space industry.

Still, such tragedies are to be expected with the onset of a burgeoning era of commercialized space travel and private exploration.

It’s important to keep this latest tragedy in perspective. The space age (which grew from experimental rocket launches outside Roswell back in the 1930s) has suffered plenty of losses through the years. In fact, Virgin Galactic had a mishap in 2007, when a ground explosion killed three people and injured three others.

This is rocket science, so the hazards are numerous and substantial.

New Mexico’s involvement in aerospace and commercial space flight is bigger than Virgin’s presence. We have the altitude, the weather and a $212 million spaceport, as well as a strong scientific infrastructure to support space flight. There’s also a strong Air Force presence, with bases at Cannon, Alamogordo and Albuquerque, and plenty of research and testing facilities at Albuquerque, Las Cruces and in the White Sands Missile Range a few miles west of the spaceport.

The state Economic Development Department lists more than 50 space-related companies headquartered or doing business in New Mexico. Last year “Site Selection,” a magazine for corporate CEOs, identified New Mexico as a state undergoing “a sonic boom in aerospace investment.”

How the crash of SpaceShipTwo will impact New Mexico’s place in this 21st century space race remains to be seen, but this much is certain: commercial space travel isn’t going away. If ever there’s an industry with a future, I’d say this is it.

And New Mexico, with all its amenities, is in a good place to take advantage.

Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at:


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