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New Mexico Banking On X Prize

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by Phil Magers
Las Cruces (UPI) May 12, 2004
New Mexico's selection for an annual race between the best privately built spaceships could establish the state as an international leader in the commercialization of space.

A remote location near Las Cruces in southern New Mexico will be the site of the X Prize Cup competition, which state officials hope will be the space industry's equivalent of the America's Cup races.

Gov. Bill Richardson and the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation announced Tuesday that New Mexico has been selected over Florida, California and Oklahoma for the races, which are expected to draw teams from around the world.

"By prevailing over Florida, California, and Oklahoma in the competition to host this landmark event, New Mexico has emphatically established itself as a worldwide leader in space commercialization," Richardson told a news conference.

Entrants in the races, scheduled to begin in the summer of 2006 after an exhibition the preceding year, will include many of the participants in the current Ansari X Prize Competition. The winner of that $10 million prize will be announced later this year.

Nearly 30 teams from seven nations are competing in that contest to design and build a spaceship capable of sending three passengers 60 miles into space and returning them safely. Those launches are under way at sites around the world.

After that event, the runners-up and other teams will focus on the New Mexico event, which will be the next stage in the mission of the X Prize Foundation to the further development of safe, cost-effective space transportation for the general public.

"Teams and their fans from around the world will gather annually in New Mexico to participate in the competition for the X Prize Cup," said Peter Mitchell, director of the Office of Space Commercialization in Santa Fe.

Rick Homans, secretary of the New Mexico Economic Development Department, said the ultimate goal of the competition is to encourage space commercialization.

"As the times get faster and faster, it means we are getting better at commercializing space and the cost is coming down," he said. "That's what this is all about, to drive the industry."

The entrants will compete for the fastest turnaround, maximum passengers per flight, maximum altitude and fastest flight from takeoff to landing. Winners will receive cash prizes and international media attention.

Local hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops will immediately benefit from the economic impact, but Richardson and other state officials hope the long-lasting impact will be new space-related industries opening in New Mexico.

The exhibition and initial races will be at the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, a NASA backup site for the space shuttle. After a few years, the races will move to the Southwest Regional Spaceport at Upham, about 30 miles north of Las Cruces.

The state of New Mexico invested $9 million in the project, which will lead to the construction of the regional spaceport, the first such inland base in the nation. The state is working to get licensing from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The New Mexico spaceport's 4,000-foot altitude was one of the reasons it was selected, Homans said. It costs less to launch vehicles at 4,000 feet because the spacecraft avoid the heavy, thick air at lower altitudes.

"You also need a place where there is virtually no air traffic to impede access to space, where there is good weather and a skilled workforce," he said. "New Mexico is in a unique position because it has all those things that no other state can offer."

New Mexico also has a long history of research tied to the work of the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. The state was selected once before for a similar research project on reusable launch vehicles, but it was never funded by NASA.

Homans said New Mexico's winning bid for the X Prize Cup competition confirms that the state is a prime base for the commercial space industry, which could be a major economic engine for the state.

"As that new technology comes online and New Mexico is identified as the place where these things are launching and landing, then the next logical step is that this is the place where they should be developed, tested and manufactured," he said.

New Mexico is also in the forefront of modern aviation with the development of a new, affordable light jet by Eclipse Aviation Corp. in Albuquerque, Homans said, making the state an emerging new player in not only space but aviation too.

"This industry is going through a fundamental transition and we want to be the place where it's reinvented with a new model," he said. "When that happens this will be an industry that will provide a huge economic base for the state."

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At their Forks, Washington facility, Space Transport Corporation (STC) successfully tested the 12-inch-diameter solid-propellant rocket engine for their Suborbital Tourism Vehicle (STV). The STV will be used in the $10 million X PRIZE competition.

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