Spaceport America: Ready to launch — at last
New Mexico’s long wait for an operational Spaceport America appears to be over. At last.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and others announced on Friday that the company is moving its spaceship and operations team to New Mexico this summer, bringing 100 jobs as well as carrier aircraft VMS Eve and spaceship VSS Unity.
The space tourism and research flights that Branson had long promised are near at hand. Final test flights will be completed in New Mexico before Virgin begins full commercial passenger service and research payloads, with the first commercial liftoffs later this year. Or next. With space travel, it’s never safe to predict.
The partnership appeared ready to collapse over the years, causing New Mexicans to lose hope and some legislators to lobby for selling the spaceport. With a multimillion-dollar investment and no discernible payoff, Spaceport America was denigrated as a boondoggle: empty, expensive and unlikely to pan out.
The original deal was simple but costly: New Mexico would build a world-class spaceport, and Virgin Galactic would become the anchor tenant, eventually launching suborbital flights from the site some 50 miles north of Las Cruces. The commitment cost the state nearly $220 million, as well as local taxes raised by nearby counties. When delays slowed Virgin Galactic’s launch plans, taxpayers grew restless. They had paid and paid and had little to show for their investment, or at least that was how it seemed.
With bipartisan support in the beginning — former GOP Sen. Pete Domenici helped obtain congressional earmarks for the project back in the 1990s — and a big boost from Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, the spaceport was viewed less favorably by Richardson’s successor, Gov. Susana Martinez. Early on, she failed to see the potential for this fledgling industry to be launched from New Mexico. That changed during her two terms, although she cut funding for it even as she pushed to attract tenants and businesses.
Despite delays, other tenants began inhabiting the hangar, bringing in revenue and asserting their faith in the notion that someday, regular flights to space would be commonplace. Right now, about 80 percent of the spaceport’s $10 million annual budget is being covered through leases and service charges paid by facility private operators. State appropriations and tax revenues make up the remainder.
Lujan Grisham has the good fortune of taking office just as the elements that could lead to long-term success for the venture are coming together. Once Virgin Galactic is up and running, tourists are expected to fork over $250,000 a ticket to fly some 60-plus miles above the Earth. A Reuters report last year stated that some 700 people already have paid a deposit for the flights. There, they will experience weightlessness and a view of the planet that most will never see.
What Domenici saw, what Richardson saw and what taxpayers in Doña Ana and Sierra counties realized, is that playing the long game can pay off.
Building a spaceport for a new industry is less about the buzzy idea of humans in suborbital flight; it’s about the opportunity to build an aerospace industry in a state where science has played such a huge role.
As George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and its sister organization, The Spaceship Co., said in making the announcement: “The first photograph of Earth from space was taken over New Mexico in October of 1946. How inspiring and appropriate that the state will soon host the first regular commercial spaceflight service, which will enable thousands of people to see Earth from space with their own eyes.”
New Mexico is made for this industry. Now, we can watch it take off.