Spaceport Blasts Off

Spaceport Blasts Off

Foster’s hangar evokes the shape of a nearby rock formation
Courtesy Foster + Partners

In early September, a competition-winning plan by UK-based Foster + Partners and design and engineering company URS was cleared for lift-off, as details were finalized on the hangar and terminal facilities for Spaceport America, the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world. The 100,000-square-foot complex located in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is expected to be fully operational by 2010, with two or three suborbital flights daily, five days a week.

The $31 million hangar by Foster is a small portion of the $200 million spaceport complex, funded by New Mexico and a 0.25 cent gross receipt tax adopted by local counties. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will serve as the spaceport’s anchor tenant, occupying training facilities, pre- and post-flight lounges and two maintenance hangars.

The competition included two other finalists: Dallas-based HKS working with Antoine Predock of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a San Francisco-based Gensler team in association with Rohde May Keller McNamara Architecture, also of Albuquerque.

The hangar is bermed into the earth.

A major requirement of the design was that it could not disturb the uses or views of nearby El Camino Real, a historic trade route that traverses the valley. Completely concealed from the west, the spaceport will be bermed in earth materials sculpted into low-rising berms. An undulating roof will mimic the rise of a formation called Point of Rocks located in the valley.

The shape of the structure is meant to evoke the dimensions of a spacecraft, with the double-height hangar rising along the linear axis, administration offices to the west, and areas for preparation and viewing in the larger eastern flank. Passengers will enter the building through a deep channel cut into the ground, walking along retaining walls housing exhibitions by the region’s residents and about the history of space travel. Views of the main “superhangar” will also be revealed before passengers reach the terminal, building drama with glimpses of the spacecraft and simulation area. A similar technique will be used for the terminal, where the control room will be visible but not open to the public. 

The facility hopes for a LEED Platinum certification, with passive energy solutions, consolidating glazing to the eastern elevation to minimize heat gain, and using the building’s massive size to draw ventilation into cooling subterranean chambers. Photovoltaic panels will supplement power production.

Acknowledging the element of spectacle certain to be associated with the structure’s novel use, while playing upon New Mexico’s rich space travel history, resulted in “flowing, dramatic spaces, and a form using natural materials that are essential, and awe-inspiring,” says Antoinette Nassopoulos, a partner at Foster + Partners. Viewing platforms are incorporated as large windows into the concrete shell, designed to best deliver the experience to both space-bound astronauts and the general public. “Visibility of mission control and take-off and landings from the spaceport add to the drama,” Nassopoulos added. Groundbreaking is set for next year.