Spaceport America looks more and more like a mirage

Denis Kintigh

Last May, Virgin Galactic announced another postponement, much to the disappointment of Michelle Lujan Grisham and her predecessors. Less than a year ago, Spaceport was the scene of high fives and joyful dancing celebrating the incredible wonder of – what exactly? A replica of what NASA accomplished six decades ago? Almost 20 years and a quarter of a billion dollars after the “revolutionary” concept/scam was first proposed, we have, what, the most expensive roller coaster in the world?

Santa Fe politicians promised it was New Mexico’s foothold for a wonderful new industry, space travel. However, much like the discontinued State Supercomputer and the revived Rail Runner, what is delivered is significantly less than what was promised.

What really happened in the skies of New Mexico? Was it real space travel? Will this ever turn into space travel? These were the hard questions ever asked, let alone answered. To have more than just a ride, a spaceship needs to get into orbit, and a usable orbit to boot.

One of the little-known realities is that in orbital mechanics, it’s not how high you go, it’s how fast you go. Unfortunately, Virgin Galactic falls far short of both. The 50 miles in altitude hailed as the edge of space is less than half of the 130 miles in altitude of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik. GPS satellites circle the earth every 12 hours, 1,260 miles above sea level. Even if they could lob the “spaceship” “Unity” higher, the maximum speeds reached are lower a third of what is needed to insert a device into orbit.

Wait though…this is just the first step. Oh good? “Air launch to orbit” systems have placed only very small satellites in low orbit. There are serious payload limitations with these systems. Moreover, single-stage orbiting remains a fantasy.

To get out of the atmosphere and stay there, you need a multi-stage launch vehicle. This means you have to drop large rocket chunks from the sky, which isn’t very popular on earth. While Space X managed to recover the first stage, the second stage is still jettisoned into the ocean. Blue Origin’s sub-orbital launches from Van Horn use a single recoverable propellant. To perform orbital flights, Blue Origin will relocate to an oceanfront property, which is rare in New Mexico. Even Virgin Orbit launched over the Pacific Ocean far from Spaceport America.

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that one can launch a multi-stage rocket from Spaceport America. There remains the small problem of latitude. Without going too far into orbital mechanics, the latitude of the launch site determines the angle or inclination of the orbit. Minimal or no incline is preferred. To reduce the inclination once in orbit a “change of plane” is performed. It is the most energy-intensive orbital maneuver. “Energy” means fuel, fuel means weight, and weight is the enemy of all space programs. High latitude is a problem that has hampered the Russian space program from the start. This is also the reason why the launch site of the European Space Agency is in French Guiana, practically on the equator.

After a quarter of a billion dollars and a decade and a half, Spaceport looks like a mirage. Too bad economics, science and orbital mechanics got in the way.

Former FBI agent and state representative Dennis Kintigh served as mayor of Roswell from 2014 to March 2022. He has a BS in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona and spent six years in the USAF and civilian military space programs.

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