By Alta LeCompte
Las Cruces Bulletin
Local businesses are focusing on the possibilities for joining the Space Age as service providers for Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America in nearby Sierra County.
A Mesilla restaurant and a Las Cruces hotel have been awarded exclusive contracts by Virgin Galactic, the company committed to launching tourists on suborbital flights at the spaceport.
Savoy de Mesilla will provide gourmet catering for Virgin Galactic at spaceport. Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, managed by New Mexico’s Heritage Hotel and Resorts, will be Doña Ana County Future Astronaut hotel, offering a uniquely tailored, premium experience, Virgin Galactic announced Monday, July 7.
“By partnering with Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces and World Class Gourmet (Savoy), we further our vision of investing in the local New Mexico community while we define the Virgin Galactic astronaut experience,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “Future astronauts will come from around the world to New Mexico, so it’s important that they experience the outstanding local offerings and character as part of their experience.”
Supporting the ability of local businesses to reach the spaceport, Doña Ana County is moving ahead with plans for upgrading the southern access road into the facility.
County engineers have completed design for the road and in August will seek a contractor for the project.
Although tourism is the most visible aspect of gearing up for spaceport, other local industries are seeking and finding business opportunities there.
Spaceport America recently awarded a contract to Pure Operations of Las Cruces for water services, according to the July spaceport newsletter.
To better connect local businesses with emerging opportunities at spaceport, the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce and the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce are joining forces to provide input for a database of local providers of goods and services available to current and prospective tenants of Spaceport America.
Christine Logan, community economic development representative for the New Mexico Department of Economic Development, is assembling the database in collaboration with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and its director, Christine Anderson.
Meanwhile, the spaceport is recruiting a flight control specialist and an aerospace engineer and Virgin Galactic has announced its intentions to do more local hiring.
“In addition to relocating a number of existing staff to New Mexico, Virgin Galactic plans to hire staff from the nearby community in the coming months,” the Virgin Galactic press release stated. “Combined, this will provide an opportunity to support local businesses in the area and create a more complete on-the-ground and localized experience for Future Astronauts. Virgin Galactic is also currently exploring several additionalpartnerships in Sierra County and hopes to announce their completion shortly.”
Extending Las Cruces hospitality
A flurry of excitement swept through the local business community this week with theannouncement that Savoy and Hotel Encanto had won high-profile opportunities to do business with Virgin Galactic.
“It’s fabulous,” said Savoy’s catering manager Diana Mengling.
“I can’t begin to put into words how excited I am.”
Mengling said Virgin Galactic went through an extensive research, vetting and taste-testing process before selecting Savoy.
Inside Spaceport America’s Gateway to Space terminal, chef Tatsu Miyazaki, known for his top restaurants – Savoy de Mesilla and Aqua Reef Euro-Asian Cuisine – and his Las Cruces-based team from World Class Gourmet, will serve as the exclusive caterer.
“Any time there’s a launch, we will cater all the meals for the four or five people going into space,” Mengling said. “After the landing, we will provide an extensive meal for the astronauts and others at spaceport.
“We’ve been preparing for quite a while,” she said, adding Virgin Galactic hasn’t given the restaurant a start date.
Hotel Encanto also has been preparing a long while – about two years according to a spokeswoman for the hotel’s management company, Heritage Hotels & Resorts Inc.
Hotel Encanto is continuing to upgrade its facilities and service in order to become a four star hotel catering to those who can afford a $250,000 space ride, as well as those who accompany them to New Mexico.
A series of renovations and service upgrades have been completed and there are more to come, the company spokeswoman said, noting the initial objective is bring the hotel up from three-star to four-star status.
“There is no five star hotel in New Mexico,” she said.
The hotel plans to hire dedicated guest concierges to help manage the Virgin Galactic guest experience, as well as add new rooms, facilities and multi-lingual staff for Virgin Galactic’s international travelers.
“Hotel Encanto is uniquely designed to reflect its community through its art, food, music, landscape andarchitecture, helping to preserve the rich cultural traditions of New Mexico. In the last year, the hotel has started upgrading work designed specifically for the Virgin Galactic experience, including newly remodeled guest rooms to accommodate Virgin Galactic’s Future Astronauts,” Virgin Galactic commented. “Other enhancements include a redesign by award-winning architects of the outdoor pool and terraced gardens along with an expanded 2,500-square-foot outdoor seating area of Azul Nightclub & Lounge.”
Hopes and concerns
Spaceport’s other high-profile tenant, SpaceX, recently conducted another low-altitude test of its Falcon 9R reusable booster at the McGregor engine test facility. This flight was the first test of a set of steerable fins that provide control of the rocket during the fly back portion of return, according to Spaceport America. SpaceX is expected to start high-altitude testing of the Falcon 9R reusable booster at Spaceport America later this year.
Virgin Galactic plans no further spaceship test flights, according to a recent article in Spacenews.
The company is, however, switching from a rubber-based fuel grain to a polyamide to give passengers a higher ride.
Whitesides told Spacenews both have been tested “a lot,” but the new fuel has given better performance indications.
While there is evidence of activity in preparation for flights, skeptics continue to question whether Spaceport America will achieve its original vision of making New Mexico the center of not just space tourism, but the whole commercial space industry.
Blogger Josh Wheeler contends Mojave is where the action is.
“Including Virgin Galactic, there are 17 commercial space companies using 19 rocket launch sites at Mojave,” he wrote in a lengthy essay published in March on Buzzfeed.
Wheeler also questions the spaceport’s ability to provide the on-the-ground tourist experience he said was expected to provided 50 percent of spaceport’s revenue.
Spaceport’s boosters speak up
Locally, Paul Deason, a member of the Spaceport Authority Board of Directors, as well as the two chambers contributing to the supplier database, and a member the High Tech Consortium of Southern New Mexico, said he’s bullish on the opportunities ahead for southern New Mexicans.
Deason said he’s pushing all the groups he’s affiliated with to make the database project a success.
“The commercial space community will have a showcase where local companies can show what they can do,” Deason said. “One of the main purposes is not only for the benefit of suppliers or commercial space companies in situ right now, but so we can go to others − Sierra, Lockheed, Boeing − any other companies that may come here, and say: “This is what you can do here. You don’t have to go to Mojave or the space corridor in Florida or Silicon Valley to find quality intellectual capital.”
In other words, Deason believes in the potential of southern New Mexico to provide the high-level technical skills the space industry requires.
He aims to convince southern New Mexico it’s up to the job.
“The people of New Mexico can do anything at a worldclass level they set their minds to do,” said Deason, who holds a doctorate from New Mexico State University and served 30 years in the Department of Defense performing experimental design and analyses for field tests, among other assignments.
“I’m 100 percent just excited about what New Mexico has with its history, its legacy, the universities and the people. This place is phenomenal. The folks outside the region need to know this; people from here need to know it. All they have to do is realize they can do it.”
Alta LeCompte can be reached at 680-1840 or alta@ lascrucesbulletin.com
While a crew works on the surrounding gardens, vacationers splash in the new pool at Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, which, along with Savoy de Mesilla restaurant, has won a contract to provide services for Virgin Galactic.
Las Cruces Bulletin photo by Alta LeCompte