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Sky’s the Limit: Exploring New Frontiers in New Mexico

Spaceport America propels New Mexico's burgeoning space industry. 

By Bill Lewis on December 20, 2022

Spaceport America Cup in New Mexico
Spaceport America Cup

Some people use New Mexico as a launching pad, riding a rocket that takes them to outer space and back. Others come from around the world and stay for a few days, and often a lifetime, developing rockets of their own or participating in the state’s growing air and space industry.

Many launches in New Mexico take place at Spaceport America, the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world, where anchor tenant Virgin Galactic helped create the space tourism industry. Other space companies at Spaceport America include HAPSMobile, AeroVironment, UP Aerospace and SpinLaunch.

Their presence has helped continue New Mexico’s history of being a catalyst for innovation, attracting top scientists, engineers and mathematicians from around the world.

That makes the state a destination for events such as the Spaceport America Cup, the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering competition. This year’s competition attracted more than 1,300 students. 

“We had 95 teams in total, our largest event ever, with 57 teams from the United States and 38 from other countries such as Canada, Poland, Brazil, Australia, Taiwan and India, just to name a few,” says Cliff Olmsted, president and chair of the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA), a nonprofit that promotes engineering knowledge and experience in rocketry.

Student participants at Spaceport America Cup in New Mexico.
Spaceport America Cup

Tomorrow’s Leaders

Spaceport America Cup is a yearlong engineering competition. The event is run by the ESRA and hosted by Spaceport America. The competition requires skills in managing complex projects to design amateur high-power rockets carrying avionics and payloads to altitudes of 10,000 feet or 30,000 feet. Skillsets range from engineering design and analysis to project management, logistics, manufacturing and flight testing. 

“Spaceport America Cup provides an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to enter the workforce with direct and relevant experience in an industry that is clamoring for more talent,” Olmsted says.

New Mexico is the perfect location for events, especially those that relate to the cutting-edge aerospace industry, he says.

“Spaceport America and the city of Las Cruces are world-class in their ability to host this competition. The demands of hosting a global competition with over 90 teams and 1,400 students launching rockets as high as 30,000 feet are very significant. Frankly speaking, there are few locations in the United States that meet these requirements and are capable of supporting so many students at the same time,” Olmsted says.

“Spaceport America Cup provides an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to enter the workforce with direct and relevant experience in an industry that is clamoring for more talent.”

Cliff Olmsted, Experimental Sounding Rocket Association

Spaceport America provides the necessary access to airspace for the event, and the relatively flat terrain permits much easier tracking and recovery of rockets. In addition, the proximity of Spaceport America to Las Cruces is a huge advantage for team lodging and addressing logistical challenges.

In addition, Spaceport America provides its own extremely robust operations and safety infrastructure that is foundational to hosting the Spaceport America Cup, Olmsted says.

Crew at the Spaceport America Cup in New Mexico.
Spaceport America Cup

Choosing New Mexico

“The Cup fulfills Spaceport America’s mission to promote educational involvement in spaceport activities and training of the workforce to develop the skills needed to enter aerospace careers,” says Executive Director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority Scott McLaughlin. “We have seen many rocketeers return to Spaceport America once they have graduated and joined the aerospace workforce. We are particularly excited to see so many of our local institutions getting involved in the competition.”

Collegiate teams from New Mexico participating in the 2022 Spaceport America Cup included the Atomic Aggies from New Mexico State University, NMT-EXSR from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and Lobo Launch from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque.

Attendees at Spaceport America Cup in New Mexico.
Spaceport America Cup

Spaceport America, situated on 18,000 acres adjacent to the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range, has a rocket-friendly environment of 6,000 square miles of restricted airspace, low population density, a 12,000-foot by 200-foot runway, vertical launch complexes, and about 340 days of sunshine and low humidity. 

“New Mexico created Spaceport America knowing the area was primed to be a key part of the growing commercial space sector,” McLaughlin says. “We have good flying weather, wide open spaces, airspace access, a large aerospace community and a statewide entrepreneurial spirit. Where else could an event with 100 launches over four days with 1,300 college students occur but in the beautiful desert of southern New Mexico?”

NMSU's atomic Aggies take the Chile Cup at the 2022 Spaceport America Cup in New Mexico.
Vladimir Avina

Spaceport America by the Numbers

  • 6,000 square miles of restricted airspace
  • 18,000 acres adjacent to the U.S. Army White Sands Missle Range
  • 12,000 feet in runway length
  • 340 days of sunshine and low humidity 
  • 4,600 feet above sea level, making launches that much closer to space

Want to know more?

To learn more about New Mexico, check out the latest edition of New Mexico Economic Development

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