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Spaceport America

Investment for the future

Scott McLaughlin is the executive director of Spaceport America, which is adjacent to the Army White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. McLaughlin was born and raised in New Mexico. After graduating with an electrical engineering degree from New Mexico State University, he left New Mexico and started a radar design and manufacturing business in Colorado. After 25 years, he returned home to New Mexico to work for Spaceport America as the Director of Business Development. With a love for space aviation, he considered the role a dream job. In 2021, he moved to his current position as Executive Director. He returned to New Mexico to work at the Spaceport and believed in the importance of creating new local jobs. “Having good-paying jobs is a good reason for students to remain here and not have to leave the area,” says McLaughlin. He believes Spaceport America is a worthwhile investment and draws high-paying jobs.

In 2022, Spaceport America's operations created 549 direct jobs and 811 total jobs. The facility sits on New Mexico State Trust lands and is an agency of the State of New Mexico.

The combined economic impact resulted in $138 million in output and contributed $60 million in value-added production. One-third of the money to fund the Spaceport came from local taxes that Doña Ana and Sierra Counties’ residents voted for, approved, and are currently paying. The rest of the Spaceport funding came from the State of New Mexico. Sierra and Doña Ana Counties’ residents are hoping for more community prosperity. These residents want a return on their investment from space tourism, jobs, and economic growth.

Space travel is only one aspect of Spaceport America. McLaughlin says, “Like the beginning of the dot com economy, companies we thought were just little experiments, like Apple, Inc., became major companies, and space is on the edge right now.”

McLaughlin sees potential in the aerospace ecosystem and a growing industry throughout Space Valley. “Space Valley is the regional nickname describing the area between Los Alamos, El Paso, and even Mexico. Not every region has the vast diversity of assets, companies, and research and development that we have,” says McLaughlin.

Local aerospace assets include research and development from Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories and regional universities. There are also other aerospace companies in Albuquerque and manufacturing companies in Santa Teresa. The goal is to have a complete aerospace ecosystem to design, manufacture, and go to orbit from Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc., an American spaceflight company, is the primary tenant at Spaceport America. Their first flight took place in 2021. Virgin Galactic can release its rocket 45,000 feet above the Earth by using a carrier aircraft.

Spaceport America has seven resident tenants, including Virgin Galactic. The other tenants are UP Aerospace, Inc., SpinLaunch, Inc., HAPSMobile, Inc., Aerovironment, Inc., a British aerospace company, Prismatic, Ltd., and an unnamed company are housed at the spaceport.

The facility has permanent tenants plus additional customers. Their goals range from testing technology to research and launching. A satellite ground station will soon become a new permanent tenant at the Spaceport. Seventy percent of the facility's operating expenses are paid for by customers who lease and use Spaceport America’s services. “The customers are coming here to conduct their tests confidentially. This is still a worthwhile investment. It’s been slow. Space is hard,” says McLaughlin.

McLaughlin believes governments need to invest in the future. He says, “When you look at the space industry and where it is heading because of the assets we already have to keep it operating, it is a huge draw for the whole region.”

The cost of going to space is also dropping, which could open more opportunities in the future. McLaughlin says, “If you look at the 2022 economic impact, we have made good headway in the last five years.”

Spaceport America hopes to “be an orbital site 10 or 20 years in the future.” Orbital spaceflights allow a spacecraft to remain in space and fly at a fast velocity. Suborbital rockets fly at a slower speed. Like Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, they launch into space but don’t have enough speed to remain in space. Weightlessness can still be experienced briefly while passengers reach space but don’t enter orbit. McLaughlin believes orbital flights from the Spaceport have “the potential to be a huge economic driver with literally thousands of jobs in the future.”

New Mexico has a rich space science history with high-altitude balloon tests and early astronaut testing. The clear New Mexico skies and high altitude are just a few benefits the Land of Enchantment offers researchers. McLaughlin says, “We have low population density, and we don’t have salt corrosion. We are also under the restricted air space of White Sands Missile Range.” Six thousand square miles of restricted airspace means no air traffic interruptions during launches. New Mexico’s clear skies and wide-open spaces are appealing to aerospace companies. McLaughlin says, “Aerospace is a good industry. We have the room; we have the weather.”

“What’s hard for New Mexicans is it’s slower than anyone thought, but we have to credit Virgin Galactic with 32 new people being added to the list of astronauts,” says McLaughlin.

Nationwide, there are only 14 FAA-licensed commercial spaceports in the U.S. “It turns out that Spaceport America is one of the most active commercial spaceports, if not the most active,” says McLaughlin. Another benefit is the Spaceport’s 4,600-foot elevation, which gives customers a one-mile head-start to reach space.

The runway covers an impressive 12,000 square-foot area. Spaceport America is the only commercial spaceport offering a vertical and horizontal launch area. The New Mexico spaceport is also working on obtaining a re-entry license through the FAA.

McLaughlin says he would go to space if he had the chance. “When people go to space, they don’t see borders. They see this very fragile ball underneath them, and all around them is black space, which profoundly affects people and how they feel about their world.” He’d like to experience that.

Mathematician Eli Maor used the phrase, To Infinity and Beyond, as a book title before it was used in the Pixar film Toy Story. The book relates to infinity in math and art and its impact on the sciences. The idea is to push the limits of what is possible. The path for Spaceport America may be less traveled, but McLaughlin says it is still on course. “We are on a good steady increase. The trajectory we are on is the right trajectory.” In other words, “To Infinity and Beyond!”