Shuttle Atlantis' last flight

Gateways to the stars

Since the final Space Shuttle flight, the world has relied on Baikonur Cosmodrome for its launches. We visited the Kazakhstan site just before a high-profile launch failure last month. The contrast with the brand new Spaceport America, currently emerging from the wilds of the New Mexican desert, couldn’t be greater.

Spaceport America

Louise Murray visits the world’s first private commercial spaceport in New Mexico to see how architects Foster and Partners have negotiated the harsh desert conditions, and discovers what the first space tourists can expect to experience.

It’s an extraordinary building. Reminiscent of a prehistoric trilobite or a stingray, and winner of an international architectural competition in 2007, the structure taking shape in the high desert of New Mexico marks the site of the world’s first purpose-built private commercial spaceport.Commissioned and funded by the state of New Mexico, designed by British architects Foster and Partners, Spaceport America will house the operations centre for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which aims to send its first tourists into sub-orbital space in 2012.

New Mexico hopes that not only will Spaceport America be iconic but that in years to come it will be an emblematic structure. Unusually, the project team has been able more or less to build the exact competition entry. All key aspects of the original design have been retained, especially the environmental engineering. This allows the building to respond to the extremes of the desert climate in an environmentally sound way, and the team is aiming for the coveted US Green Building Council’s Gold standard.

The site of Spaceport America lies 90 miles north of El Paso, in southern New Mexico. Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, explains the reasons for this spot: “Our altitude helps. At 1,400m we need less fuel to launch from here than an operation at sea level. Uniquely in the US, we also have a large area of restricted air space that is associated with the nearby White Sands Missile Range, which they are kind enough to share with us, making our location ideal for a space facility. We also expect the spaceport to be a real visitor draw and have already started the first guided tours.”  

The state also has a pool of skilled labour at the nearby Holloman airforce base (home of 49th fighter wing and a former Nasa alternative landing site for the shuttle), the New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, and at White Sands.

New Mexico’s association with space and rockets dates back to the Second World War when the world’s first nuclear weapons test, code-named Trinity, took place nearby. The spaceport also has a vertical launch complex that has seen 10 successful launches since 2006 by companies such as Lockheed Martin and Armadillo Aerospace.

British architecture

Fosters is well known for its work on international airports, such as Beijing, Hong Kong and London Stansted. But it is clearly important to differentiate the experience of spaceflight from the unglamourous grind that international air travel has become.  

“We wanted to restore a connection with the early days of flying, a genuine experience that combines a sense of theatre and glamour, as after all, the astronauts are real pioneers,” says lead architect Antoinette Nassopoulos-Erickson. “Our spaceport design uniquely combines the operational side of space travel with the passenger experience, something that has been lost amid security concerns in modern airports.”   

Only refuelling of the spacecraft will take place outside; all other preparation and maintenance work will happen inside the hangars in full view of astronauts and their guests. They will look down into the hangars from a transit bridge just as passengers used to watch their flight being prepared. It is a conscious bid to recapture the sense of engagement of the early days of flight.

The north-south runway dictated the orientation of the spaceport. The areas containing friends and family lounges, mission control and astronaut briefing and training all had to have excellent views out on to the runway. At the eastern elevation a glazed wall reaches from the taxi apron to the heavily overhung roof, which helps to protect the interior from the sun.  

“If we had had our choice, we would not have had an east-facing wall of glass,” says Piers Heath, environmental engineer and senior partner at Fosters. “The low-altitude, direct solar exposure raised concerns of glare and thermal gain but that was something we had to live with.”  

Environmental standards

Heath is responsible for the environmental soundness of the design and for ensuring that the building conforms to the rigorous environmental standards, demanded by the US Green Building council. The designers started with long-term data on local weather patterns to understand wind profiles, rainfall intensity, cloud cover, daily and seasonal temperature ranges. Perhaps surprisingly this high semi-desert location experiences a wide range of temperatures, from -17°C to 40°C. Unsurprisingly, the air is extremely dry.

The low-lying building is flanked by earth berms that make it look dug into the ground. Once the desert scrub has seeded itself over these, the spaceport will blend into the landscape, particularly from the all-important western aspect. It was a requirement of the original competition that the spaceport be all but invisible from the historically important El Camino Real trail, an early trade route between New Mexico and Mexico City. The earthern ramparts house almost 700m of a thermal labyrinth, formed by air tubes buried over a metre below ground. The berms also serve as a thermal shield, protecting much of the spaceport from direct sunlight. Piers had originally planned that the labyrinth be formed using compressed earth from the site, but the topsoil proved too friable, and so reluctantly the team had to revert to less environmentally friendly concrete piping.  

“Through use of the labyrinth, we wanted to harness the local diurnal variation in temperatures to passively warm and cool the building as much as possible,” Heath explains.  

Purge windows in the tunnels allow the engineers to use low-power fans to draw in air at night, pre-charging the pipes with cool air ready to be used during the heat of the day. Also, the very dry desert air allows the designers to make effective use of evaporative cooling rather than energy-hungry air-conditioning. Spraying a fine mist of water droplets into the tunnels drops the air temperature very effectively. The team expects energy savings of the order of 30-50 per cent over a conventional design approach.

The building’s area is not huge by any standards – 10,219m2. A budget of $32m has kept it to a modest scale. Half of the area is for a drive-through hangar which can accommodate two WhiteKnightTwo motherships and five SpaceshipTwo (SS2) suborbital spacecraft, if parking is spot on.

The building’s overall height of only 18.3m relates directly to the dimensions of the spacecraft. Sitting alongside the two-mile-long runway, which was inaugurated in October 2010, the new spaceport blends almost organically into its desert environment but the need for a strong form that would be visible from altitude also influenced the design. The building’s outline will be low-key at ground level but will look highly distinctive from above. There are no other significant landmarks in the desert apart from the spaceport and its runway, and Spaceport America will be clearly visible from space.  

There is a very ‘earthy’ character to the building and the colours blend into the desert landscape. The whole colour palette was developed over a number of site visits throughout the year when the architectural team brought back samples of vegetation and red soils to its London HQ. The exterior cladding is predominately CORE-10 steel panels that have been pre-weathered prior to installation. The EDPM rubber-coated roof is coloured a coppery bronze to resemble the desert soils and this is punctuated with skylights to deliver natural light into the hangar below.  

“We planned the spaceport to blend into its desert environment, particularly from the western view from the historic El Camino Real,” says Nassopoulos-Erickson.

Keeping the customer satisfied

Spaceport America will serve clients of Virgin Galactic, who have signed a 20-year lease on the building and have been involved in the design and construction phase. Its astronaut passengers will pay $200,000 a ticket for a three-day event, culminating in a two-hour flight to suborbital space, reaching 110km above the surface at the apogee. The layout of the interior spaces has evolved as Virgin Galactic has refined its ideas but exact elements of what these amateur astronauts might expect are still shrouded in secrecy.

“We want to preserve a mystique to the passenger experience,” says Mark Butler, project manager for Virgin Galactic. “Our clients want to feel special. They are pioneers after all. As they progress through their three-day experience, different parts of the building are revealed sequentially. Even this pre-flight phase is designed to be about a voyage of discovery.”   

To date, over 450 deposits have been received from people aged from 18 to 80 plus from all over the globe. All have passed medicals; many are wealthy, but not all; and they range from single individuals to whole families. Of Virgin’s first 100 customers – the Founder group – 81 have already taken part in centrifuge training that replicates the G-forces expected in flight.   

“We want our clients to make the absolute best of their time in Space,” adds Butler. “That means making them as informed as possible before they actually enter the spaceship, about the risks and safety of course, but also softer aspects of the experience like geography and orientation.”  

Visitors and astronauts will enter the building via a deep channel, cut into the landscape through the earth berms. The walls depict a history of the area and man’s history in flight and space. The strong linear axis continues on a galleried level above the hangar – which houses the spacecraft themselves and their motherships – and through to the terminal building that will house astronaut simulation and training areas, spacesuit changing and fitting, mission control and visitor areas.

The first two days will be taken up with further medical checks and familiarisation with the spacecraft cabin (using a duplicate on board the mothership), the spacesuits, communications and emergency procedures. The seats will require some introduction, as they will likely have different conformations, according to the phase and G-levels of the flight. Engineers, pilots and astronauts will give lectures about what to expect and all risks will be fully explained so that the principle of informed consent can apply.  

On the third day, friends and family will be invited to the spaceport to see the astronauts as they suit and boot up, and board the spacecraft. Once in orbit, all passengers will be able to leave their seats and float in zero gravity, having an unparalleled view of Earth from the large spaceship windows stretching for 1,000 miles in every direction. Two hours later they will be welcomed back to Earth and the celebrations can begin. While the astronaut’s main focus will be the flight, the three-day preparation will be heavily filmed and recorded, so that clients have a significant memento of what will be for most a once in a lifetime experience.

Virgin plans to carry out its own interior fit-out of the building and is in the process of building a hotel and resort 40km north of the spaceport. This should provide the astronauts with the kind of luxury accommodation not available locally at the nearest hamlet named Truth or Consequences.  

The question now is, when will flights commence? “The primary driver for us, of course, is safety rather than gearing towards a date, but if the safety and flight test programmes for the WhiteKnight motherships and the spacecraft go as planned, then we are expecting commercial operations to start towards the end of 2012, early 2013.”

Some of the Founder customers have had a long wait: the first put down deposits in 2005. Virgin has already received some $57m in deposits and sees space tourists likely to number some 500 in the first year of operations and 50,000 over ten years.

Scientists in space

But the new spaceport will not just be about tourism; the first commercial contract has been signed with the Southwestern Research Institute enabling scientists to conduct microgravity, biology, climate and astronomy experiments.

Virgin Galactic was involved from the outset, sitting on the judging panel for the initial competition. “Being involved from the start means that the whole building is purpose-built for us. We are especially proud of the level of sustainability incorporated into the spaceport,” says Butler.  

Virgin clearly intends to maintain as much control over the entire site as possible, not just over the spaceport building. Virgin Galactic has a right of first refusal over any land plots and plans to ensure that all development is in keeping with the new building and conforms to high criteria of environmental impact.

The iconic Spaceport America will undoubtedly win many awards. * 

One small steppe

Mark Williamson visits the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where Russian engineers don’t bother with bells and whistles, and marvels at how close they dare stand to a Soyuz rocket launch.

As a bright red Sun bulges above the clear horizon of the desiccated Kazakh steppe some 200km east of the shrunken Aral Sea, it is time to board an air-conditioned bus for the hour-long, bone-shattering ride to the launch pad.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the roads of the Baikonur Cosmodrome had not been resurfaced since 1957, when Soviet engineers emerged from their billets to orchestrate the launch of the Sputnik, the first man-made object to reach Space.

There are many launch sites and spaceports around the world but none has the heritage of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from which the Sputniks, Vostoks and Yuri Gagarin himself were launched into the history books.  

Heritage infrastructure

The Cosmodrome is built on a desert plateau, which experiences searing heat and high humidity in summer and seriously sub-zero temperatures in winter. At the time of our visit to the Soyuz launch pad, it was 43°C in the shade and even the resilient guards shade-hopped while the mad-dog photographers among us jostled for the best angle.

The reasons for siting the Cosmodrome in such a hostile environment are several and mostly relate to the technical requirements of a launch site. First, the majority of rockets launch towards the east to benefit from the Earth’s rotation which adds an extra ‘kick’ to a satellite’s orbital velocity, thereby saving propellant. The effect is greatest at the equator, so the Cosmodrome was sited as far south within the Soviet Union as practicable, in southern Kazakhstan.  

Secondly, most Western launch sites are located on an east-facing coast, so that spent rocket stages (or malfunctioning vehicles) can be dumped in the ocean. Lacking a suitable beach, the best the USSR could do was to place its Cosmodrome where rocket stages could fall harmlessly (though this is now disputed) in a sparsely populated desert.

Thirdly, the clarity of the atmosphere for a good proportion of the year makes launches more predictable and also more readily observable for technical verification.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome

In addition, it is clear that when it was established in 1955, the Soviet authorities wanted their leading launch site to be far from prying eyes and well away from Moscow. Indeed, although they referred to it publicly as the ‘Baikonur Cosmodrome’, it is in fact some 300km from the original town of Baykonur and only 20km from the railway settlement of Tyuratam, an attempt at misinformation that worked for a while at least.

Today, the township that has grown up to support the Cosmodrome and house its workers over the decades is known more proudly as Baikonur and features, among others, a statue of Yuri Gagarin, a bust of Sergei Korolev, the ‘chief designer’ of the Soviet space programme, and a full-size Soyuz rocket in a public park.

The Cosmodrome itself is a vast, brown expanse of scrubland, punctuated by the occasional dilapidated industrial building and launch complex gantry. There is never any doubt that this is a developed area, however, thanks to the ever-present railway lines and electricity pylons. The occasional wild horse or camel completes the scene.

In stark contrast to the growing commercial ‘spaceports of the future’, there are no gleaming, architect-designed terminals here. And there is no ‘hospitality’ at the Soyuz observation site, just a small wooden building with a shaded viewing platform on top.

Inside, a single room houses leather chairs for dignitaries and a flat-screen TV showing close-ups of the rocket. Our interpreter was keen to point out the metal window shields, poised in preparation should the rocket suffer a catastrophic explosion.

What the Cosmodrome does have, however, is comprehensive facilities for preparing the rockets and their cargos, human or otherwise, and its cleanrooms, rocket integration halls and launch pads are the equal of any other nation.

Commercial space

Russia, as a world space power, was left with something of a dilemma when the Soviet Union collapsed, as it found its main launch site suddenly within the territory of another country. Following what must have been interesting negotiations, Russia now leases the Baikonur Cosmodrome from Kazakhstan and can continue its programme more or less as before (except that, since the end of the Cold War, funding has been more difficult to secure).

One of the spin-offs of political change was the opening of the Cosmodrome to Western commercial enterprises, mainly via joint ventures with incumbent Russian companies. Probably the best known is International Launch Services (ILS), originally the result of an agreement made in 1995 between Lockheed Martin and Khrunichev to market commercial satellite launches jointly on America’s Atlas and Russia’s Proton launch vehicle.

In 2006, Lockheed sold its interest to Space Transport Inc, a private company, and in 2008 Khrunichev became the majority shareholder of ILS, marketing only the Proton.

Baikonur’s other major international customer is the Starsem commercial venture between Russia (the space agency Roscosmos and the Samara Space Centre) and Europe (Arianespace and Astrium). Inaugurated in 1996, Starsem would see the commercialisation and continued evolution of the venerable Soyuz launch system.

Military lock-down

Although specific sections of the Cosmodrome are operated as commercial spaceports, much like Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Baikonur is run on military lines, which means soldiers, checkpoints and restrictions. To professional journalists who take for granted the ability to tour the Florida launch facilities of Nasa, the Arianespace launch site in French Guiana and others, the restrictions imposed at Baikonur can be frustrating.

Visits to particular launch pads – even those no longer in operation – must be approved in advance, while many sites remain strictly out of bounds. That said, it’s certainly possible to feel less welcome as a foreigner in the US, and the authorities are fairly relaxed about photography.

Interestingly, because the Cosmodrome itself is effectively Russian territory (by way of the lease), visitors need only a Russian visa; however, it must be a double-entry type, because the charter flight from Moscow has to return there.  

‘Ready? OK. Launch.’

Our visit in July was arranged to view the launch of six Globalstar-2 satellites for the mobile communications provider’s second generation. By the time we arrived the day before the planned launch, the 23rd Starsem Soyuz was already on the pad. The satellites had been stacked inside the fairing, mounted on a specially designed ‘dispenser’ that would release them sequentially once the Fregat upper stage had delivered them to the correct position in low Earth orbit. The first six of the 24-strong constellation were launched successfully by Starsem, under subcontract to Arianespace, in October 2010.

Through a mixture of robust technology and long experience, the Russian launch procedure is different from the Western one. Whereas American launches are delayed by anything from low cloud to high winds and, sadly, in the case of the star-crossed Challenger, have failed as a direct result of low temperatures, very little in the way of weather stops the Russians launching their rockets. Indeed, it is not in the Baikonur culture to make heavy weather about launching a rocket, and this matter-of-fact attitude can be off-putting to Western observers.

Viewing an American rocket launch – especially a manned one – is an emotional experience. The tannoy sings with the voice of an expectant commentator, explaining every stage of pressurisation event and swing arm retraction, and finally tagging a successful lift-off with an
equally uplifting catch phrase, such as “…bringing American science into the 21st century”.

Even before launch, the air of expectation is pumped by the phenomenon of the countdown, ticking ever closer to zero and the ultimate reveal of launch. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the use of so-called ‘regressive counting’ owes its origin to the entertainment industry, specifically the 1929 Fritz Lang film ‘Die Frau im Mond’ (‘The Woman in the Moon’), for which it was considered more exciting than counting upwards to a preset figure.

By contrast, the modern-day Russian launch industry appears to have no truck with all this unnecessary embellishment. The final moments preceding a Soyuz launch, for example, are indeed broadcast over speakers at the viewing site, but the commentary is largely technical: this switch switched, that reading confirmed, and so on. While a “ten, nine, eight...” might be voiced for special missions, for a bog-standard satellite launch the final countdown is more of a “Ready? OK. Launch”.

The upside is that spectators get to stand about a kilometre from the launch site, instead of the 3-5km from a Western pad. Back in the vehicle integration hangar, our guide warmed to questioning by admitting to a rebellious rejection of what passed for health and safety regulations in the early days. “We used to see how close we could get to the rockets as they launched”, he said, “and sometimes we got a little too hot.”

So, how was the launch of Globalstar-2? Unfortunately, it was delayed for two days and occurred successfully during our return home. According to Arianespace spokesman Mario de Lepine, it was “due to a malfunction of equipment on the Soyuz launch pad” and not easy to repair quickly. It was disappointing not to see the blue touch-paper lit, but since all 23 Starsem launches have been successful in delivering satellites to orbit, one cannot criticise the company for a little delay.

Baikonur’s future?

Meanwhile, as launches continue without fanfare from Baikonur, Russia is developing a launch site within its own geographical boundaries to allow it to reduce its dependence on Kazakhstan.

In August 2010, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited the site of the nascent Vostochny Cosmodrome, a former missile base outside Uglegorsk, some 5,800km east of Moscow. Russia will launch its first unmanned space missions from the new Cosmodrome in 2015, he said, while the first manned launches are expected from 2018.

But the Baikonur Cosmodrome has a lot more life in it yet. Not only does Russia’s lease extend until 2050, but International Launch Services and others will continue to launch commercial satellites from the site for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, since 2007 Kazakhstan has had its own space agency, Kazcosmos, which has requested funding for a new pad at Baikonur. Nothing is ever sure where large investments are concerned but the launch pads of Baikonur will continue to keep the wild camels of the Kazakh steppe awake for a while longer. *

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