Federal tax money for Spaceport? Two NM congressional candidates support idea


MONEY MATTERS: Spaceport America was built with $218 million of money from New Mexico taxpayers. But both candidates for southern New Mexico’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives say they favor the idea of federal funding for the project as well.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

State taxpayers have already kicked in $218.5 million to build Spaceport America, the commercial space venture in southern New Mexico that is still waiting for its anchor tenant Virgin Galactic to launch its first flight into suborbital space.

But federal taxpayer money?

That’s never really been on the table.

Both the Democrat and Republican in the race for U.S. House of Representatives in New Mexico’s Second Congressional District say they support the idea of federal funding going to the project.

At a debate on statewide television last week, moderator and former ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson asked incumbent Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and challenger Roxanne Lara, “Would you pursue and approve of federal funding … for the Spaceport?”

Pearce said he “would be glad to support it” and Lara said the Spaceport “needs a good plan that’s going forward and the federal funding can be a part and a piece of that.”

Here’s the entire exchange from the debate aired at the KRWG-TV studios in Las Cruces:

Located in a desert just west of the White Sands Missile Range, Spaceport America receives “a little direct” federal funding, Spaceport executive director Christine Anderson told New Mexico Watchdog, but the numbers are small in comparison to the project’s overall budgeting and sunk costs.

The direct funding comes to about $500,000 in grants from the Federal Aviation Administration for things like advanced weather operations systems and infrastructure improvements.

Some indirect funding comes from the NASA Flight Opportunities Program, designed to promote suborbital commercial flight. However, the NASA money didn’t go to Spaceport America but to one of the facility’s customers, UP Aerospace, a private spaceflight firm based in Denver.

Anderson said the Spaceport Authority hasn’t actively pursued federal funding outside of the grants they’ve received. “We don’t have any plans to do that,” she said. “We’re a commercial spaceport and we’re trying to earn revenue through our launch tenants.”

CHEERS: British billionaire Sir Richard Branson drinks champagne after rappelling down the side of the hangar at Spaceport America in 2011.

Spaceport America had its grand opening in 2011, with billionaire Richard Branson showing off his flair for promotion by rappelling down the façade of the facility’s main building.

Branson is the CEO of Virgin Galactic, the anchor tenant for Spaceport that’s signed up well-heeled customers and celebrities to pay up to $250,000 to launch into suborbital space in what supporters say will be the first step in a burgeoning future for space tourism and travel.

Branson originally expected to lift off from New Mexico in 2012, but has repeatedly pushed back the launch date as his company’s officials work out the daunting engineering issues involved in the project. Last month, Branson told David Letterman he’s expecting the first launch in “February or March of next year.”

The prospect of federal funding for Spaceport doesn’t sit well with Paul Gessing, the president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Albuquerque.

“Spaceport America has been open for three years now,” Gessing said in an email. “New Mexico taxpayers have spent more than $200 million on this project to date with none of the promised ‘space tourism’ activity…While this has been a costly and unfortunate boondoggle, it would be even more unfortunate if the federal government started funding spaceports in New Mexico and around the nation as Rep. Pearce and candidate Lara apparently desire.”

Virgin Galactic isn’t the only tenant or customer at Spaceport.

On Monday, UP Aerospace undertook its 13th successful payload launch from Spaceport America.

And SpaceX, a space transport venture fronted by billionaire Elon Musk, has spent $2 million in infrastructure improvements at Spaceport as SpaceX develops its Falcon 9R rocket, a reuseable design that launches and then lands back on Earth.

Yet Virgin Galactic is in many ways the face of Spaceport. Under the terms of its lease, the company will pay between $25,000-$75,000 to the state for each flight that takes off. That money doesn’t start flowing until launches begin.

“Ironically, while discussions of ‘inequality’ remain hot topics, New Mexico’s spaceport exacerbates it by taxing the citizens of one of the poorest states in the nation for the benefit of a foreign billionaire, Richard Branson, and millionaire celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Paris Hilton, and Justin Bieber, who are spending $250,000 for a few minutes in space,” Gessing said.

“We’re acting like a commercial entity,” Anderson said. “Rather than having a handout for more state money, we’re thrilled with what we have gotten. That was very generous of the state (to fund Spaceport). We’re trying to make the Spaceport a big success in terms of jobs for the state of New Mexico so we’re tying to be self-supporting and trying to earn it like any other commercial enterprise.”