Spaceport America: High Performance Construction in the New Mexican Desert

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It seems totally appropriate that the Mesilla Valley in Southern New Mexico is the site of one of the world’s most exciting feats of modern human exploration. Ever since the 1500s when Spanish Conquistadors scouted this beautiful valley along the Rio Grande River, this enchanted territory has seen travelers, traders, and tourists pass through its hostile reaches in search of better lives and new horizons. In the past, the Mesilla Valley was a place to pass through along the historic Camino Real for travelers on the trade route from Mexico City to Santa Fe. In the future, however, it will be an exciting destination, with the development of Spaceport America, the world’s first private spaceport.

Anchored by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic enterprise, Spaceport America will be launching private astronauts into sub-orbital space as early as the last quarter of 2011. The pioneering effort began in 2004 with the passage of a State of New Mexico tax and bonding initiative creating the New Mexico Space Authority. Under the gifted leadership of Governor Bill Richardson (most recently in the news as unofficial envoy to North Korea), the Spaceport Authority was developed in conjunction with Sir Branson to become America’s first ground-up, purpose-driven venture into commercial space travel.

The Spaceport’s first runway is complete and held the first flyover and landing by White Knight Two, in a captive carry with Space Ship Two, Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, during a dedication by Sir Richard Branson and Governor Richardson on October 22. The Spaceport’s Terminal Hangar Facility and Air Rescue and Fire Facility (ARFF) are about 60% complete, with completion set for mid-2011.

Foster + Partners designed Spaceport America Construction site
Foster + Partners designed Spaceport America Construction site
Foster + Partners designed Spaceport America Construction site

Designed by London’s Foster + Partners in conjunction with URS Corporation, the Terminal Hangar Facility is a LEED-rated, high-performance building that passes the New Mexico desert climate’s cool night air through underground convection tubes to regulate its temperature. The buildings at Spaceport America were designed in a Foster + Partners joint venture with URS and AECOM, with New Mexico’s SMPC Architects as architect of record.

According to Jeff Stone, Senior Project Manager with Summit West Construction, the general contractor for the Terminal Hangar Facility, “Obviously, the challenges of a curvaceous building like (Terminal Hangar Facility) THF come one after the other, but we’re on time and on schedule. It’s good to see the building take shape; we’re excited to be a part of the effort and New Mexico’s future. We adopted the principles of integrated project delivery without any contractual agreement. The architects, owner’s reps and everyone just worked together real well as a team. That is what made all the difference. Even the steel frame and its unique parts were fabricated without anything more unusual than a missed bolt location and small things like that.”

Foster + Partners designed Spaceport America Construction site
Foster + Partners designed Spaceport America Construction detailFoster + Partners designed Spaceport America Construction site
Foster + Partners designed Spaceport America Construction site

According to Glen Fellows, senior project manager for SMPC Architects, “Using Revit and BIM was the only way that we could successfully deliver the building’s design.”

The project’s success was also highlighted by Jim Hayhoe, Executive Director of Spaceport Consultants, located on the campus of Southern New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Hayhoe says, “I was just attending a Spaceport America board meeting where the staff summarized the percentage of completion of the 13 separate projects now underway. There’s no question: everybody’s on schedule. Work at the site peaked out at about 660 workers. There are now about 200 on site. The contractors really didn’t have any difficulty finding qualified staff. They worked long hours to minimize the commute. The project’s building out well. We didn’t get as much local labor participation as we had hoped for, but we’re doing a heck of a lot more in getting a higher percentage of minority and locally based participation than we have in the past. Since they’re putting in $58 million in locally raised tax revenue from the two participating counties, we want to get a return on our investment on that. We recently held an industry day where we registered over 150 businesses that are available to help with the operation of the Spaceport once it’s up and running. That was discussed at the board meeting, too, as a priority of theirs.”

According to resort developer Scott Brown, a resident of nearby Truth or Consequences, “Richard (Branson) really took a leap of faith to support (Governor) Bill (Richardson)’s initiative as to whether the southern New Mexico residents and business community members were up for the challenge of building a world-class facility for something as innovative as a commercial spaceport, but with the project being well along and under budget so far, the hope for southern New Mexico as one of the world’s first space travel-oriented communities is very positive, very bright.”

Spaceport America Construction Images

Getting permanent power to the site remains the only major challenge for the project, but that, too, is getting solved. Stone says, “The Virgin Galactic guys still have some work to do for them to get their vehicles operational, so we’re all confident that we’ll be done by the time they’re ready to fly out of the Spaceport. We’re working right now with the Foster interior design staff on interior finishes.”

The Request for Proposals for the Spaceport’s Operations is now on the New Mexico Spaceport Authority’s website, anticipating a late 2011 first launch date for the facility.

New Mexico’s 2012 Centennial celebrations will surely include events that will not only commemorate its past as one of the youngest states in the U.S. but that will also revel in its future as the location of the world’s first and most important spaceport community and as an inspiration for future generations that may take space travel for granted. Imagine traveling from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to Shanghai, China in an hour and ten minutes…



Morey Bean, AIA, LEED AP

Colorado's 1999 Architect of the Year and Vice Chair of the Boulder Chapter of the Urban Land Institute, Morey’s experience includes the successful development of the Colorado Architecture Partnership, an architecture firm dedicated to sustainability and green building. Morey was appointed by the Chief Architect of the GSA to the National Register of Peer Professionals. He serves as a ULI Service Advisory Panelist and was a charter member of the Colorado Chapter of the USGBC and past president of the Colorado South Chapter of the AIA. He is a construction litigation services expert witness, land development analyst and sustainability strategies consultant.

The author was honored by the Colorado Component of the American Institute of Architects as their Architect of the Year in 1999 and is on the Roster of Neutrals for the American Arbitration Association (AAA), providing dispute settlement for the design and construction industry.

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