10 years on: A progress report on Spaceport America

PROGRESS REPORT: It’s been a decade since plans for Spaceport America were unveiled. Critics say it hasn’t produced a return on New Mexico taxpayers’ $218.5 million investment but supporters say the money will come.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

It has cost New Mexico taxpayers $218.5 million to construct and its anchor tenant, headed by a flamboyant billionaire, has yet to get off the ground.

Nonetheless, backers of Spaceport America remain confident the investment in the first site built specifically for commercial flights going into suborbital space will pay off.

“When it comes to the whole commercial space industry, I don’t think it’s a matter of if it’s going to happen, but when,” said Christine Anderson, executive director of Spaceport America, located essentially in the middle of nowhere in a desert basin in southern New Mexico — 45 miles north of Las Cruces, 20 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences and just west of the White Sands Missile Range.

It’s been a little more than 10 years since the idea of constructing a spaceport was picked up during the administration of then-Gov. Bill Richardson. To get some clarity about where Spaceport and its various commercial ventures and infrastructure projects stand after a decade, New Mexico Watchdog spoke to Anderson last week by telephone.

Virgin Galactic

The British-based company headed by Richard Branson isn’t the only commercial outfit operating out of Spaceport America. It just seems that way.

After all, Virgin Galactic is Spaceport’s anchor tenant and will pay between $25,000 and $75,000 to the Spaceport Authority (i.e., New Mexico taxpayers) for every flight it launches.

But when will that inaugural launch — promising to eventually take more than 700 well-heeled passengers and celebrities who have paid up to $250,000 to get blasted into suborbital space — ever happen?

Branson originally expected to lift off in 2012, but he’s delayed the launch date numerous times as Virgin Galactic engineers tackle the daunting issues involved in sending a rocket ship 62.1 miles above the earth’s atmosphere and returning it safely to Earth. Last month, Branson told David Letterman he’s expecting the first launch in “February or March of next year.”

Virgin Galactic is finishing up testing in Mojave, Calif., on the rockets that will power SpaceShipTwo.

“We’re thrilled about that because that means they’ll be here soon,” said Anderson.

But when will the maiden flight take place?

“This is hard stuff and you want them to get it right,” Anderson said. “Particularly when they’re flying commercial passengers, you really want them to get it right.”

While Virgin Galactic still hasn’t started flights, it has started to pay its lease at Spaceport, which Anderson said comes to $1 million a year.

SpaceX

Branson isn’t the only billionaire at Spaceport. Elon Musk has dreams of colonizing Mars and his SpaceX venture signed a three-year lease last year with Spaceport to test reusable rockets.

Anderson said SpaceX has already spent $2 million on infrastructure improvements on its Spaceport site. Musk’s team is working on what Anderson called “the holy grail of vertical launch,” its Falcon 9R that’s designed to lift off and instead of having the first stage of the rocket get discarded into the ocean, returns the ground to be used again. SpaceX is testing the rocket in Texas and suffered a malfunction in August, but plans to conduct its launches in New Mexico.

“We can’t wait for them to bring in the rocket,” Anderson said.

When will that happen?

“All I can say is soon,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of like Virgin Galactic. They set their dates and they’re milestone-driven.”

Tenants and customers

Spaceport makes a distinction between tenants — companies that base their operations on site — and customers, who use the facility on an as-needed basis. So far, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are Spaceport’s only tenants.

But one of its customers made headlines last Thursday.

UP Aerospace, a space flight firm based in Denver, used Spaceport America to conduct its 13th successful payload launch:

Overall, it marked the 21st successful vertical launch from Spaceport since the facility’s grand opening in October 2011.

The UP Aerospace rocket used Thursday was supplied by NASA and reached an altitude of 77 miles, beating the old Spaceport record by four miles.

Among the items carried on the rocket were the ashes of 33 people, which has become something of a growing market among Baby Boomers.

Armadillo Aerospace used to be a customer, but after having money problems the company is regrouping under a different name.

Does Spaceport make any money on these customer flights?

“Anytime anybody uses the Spaceport, we get revenue,” Anderson said, although she didn’t have the figures for the UP Aerospace launch. “They pay for support services.”

The visitors center

Spaceport is building what it’s calling a “visitor experience” to lure tourists. A 4,000-square-foot “Gateway Gallery” is expected to be completed in the spring.

In Truth or Consequences, a visitors center hasn’t yet broken ground, but is expected to be finished in “about a year and three or four months,” Anderson said.

Eventually, Anderson said visitors will be able to see actual launches. “When Virgin starts flying, we haven’t started talking about how we’re going to orchestrate that, but I’m sure there will be great opportunities for people to do that,” she said.

There have been questions about the lack of facilities in the area surrounding Spaceport America, but Virgin Galactic signed an agreement in July with an upscale hotel in Las Cruces and a gourmet caterer to serve its SpaceShipTwo passengers.

Road woes

The construction of a road entering Spaceport from the south has been a subject of debate for years. Some $14.2 million has been set aside, but the paving hasn’t yet started to replace the rough road that starts in Doña Ana County and ends in Sierra County. Doña Ana County’s engineer told lawmakers this week construction should start this summer.

“We desperately need that road,” Anderson said.

There’s some question about whether the proposed road can handle traffic that could come from large numbers of tourists supporters hope flock to Spaceport. The Doña Ana County Commission has called on the state to adopt the road.

Competition

New Mexico may have been first with a spaceport, but more states and foreign countries are building their own commercial facilities.

Texas, California and Florida have joined the race and Alaska even has a facility that conducts polar orbits.

“IT IS GOING TO HAPPEN”: Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson commercial space travel is a virtual certainty.

Great Britain and Sweden each recently announced their own plans and Abu Dhabi, flush with petrodollars, has partnered with Branson and Virgin Galactic to construct a spaceport in the United Arab Emirates.

On one hand, such news bolster the case made by supporters that commercial space flight is the wave of the future.

But does that raise the possibility space flight firms will bypass little old New Mexico? Or that current tenants like Virgin Galactic will play one spaceport off another, like pro football owners do, to get better lease agreements?

“We’re all kind of different,” Anderson said. “What works in one place doesn’t necessarily work in another. The business model you’re pursuing and the customers are different. Mojave does a lot of flight testing, not so much the space tourism that we’re going to do here. ”

The long run

In many ways, Virgin Galactic is the face of Spaceport America and Branson has caught a lot of heat from critics this year.

“It’s clear that (Branson) launched Virgin Galactic without remotely understanding the complexity of the technical challenges involved and, probably, still doesn’t,” British journalist Tom Bower wrote in a highly critical biography of the billionaire, doubting whether SpaceShipTwo can generate enough power to ever take passengers into suborbital space.

“The best way of dealing with people like that is to prove them wrong and we will prove them wrong in the next few months,” Branson said.

Most New Mexico legislators haven’t lost faith yet.

“Branson may not even turn out to be the future out there,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, one of the Legislature’s most vocal fiscal hawks. “I still have a lot of hope that we re-enter with aggressiveness on space research.”

“We’ve already spent the money,” state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said. “The potential is there. The Branson thing is disappointing, but I think the space program there is alive and well.”

“It is going to happen. We’re on the cusp of this next generation of transportation for humans,” Anderson said. “We appreciate the advancement the people of New Mexico made in us and we’re trying to make it a success.”

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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