Inside the Capitol

Thursday, January 19, 2006

1-25 Spaceport Questions Answered

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- New Mexico's spaceport won't be just for sending rich people into space, those passengers will be financing the dawn of a new era in space, says Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic.
The charge that New Mexico shouldn't be financing thrill rides for rich folks seems to rankle the Virgin Galactic officials more than any other objection to the spaceport.
High-paying passengers on the first commercial airplane flights were what got the airline industry off the ground. And that is exactly what the $200,000-a-pop passengers on the first commercial space flights will be doing.
Rich people will be paying for the technical development of commercial spacecraft rather than taxpayers. Roughly 45,000 have now signed up for the flights, 157 of those have paid the full $200,000. The rest have put down a $20,000 deposit.
Whitehorn says the eventual viability of the venture will depend on getting the cost down to about $50,000, which he says, is not unusual for adventure travel.
Climbing Mount Everest costs a lot more, he said, giving no indication he might be referring to a previous governor who put New Mexico's spaceport development on hold for eight years.
Any fears this column had that lawmakers would not fully explore the questions and risks involved before moving to approve the spaceport construction disappeared as lawmakers spent five hours on the second day of the session asking tough questions.
Many of those questions were ones that this column has posed in recent weeks. And they got good answers.
The reason abandoned air bases at Roswell and Clovis weren't considered is that the chosen site is much farther from population centers and because White Sands Missile Range, next door, is one of only two air spaces that are restricted "from earth to infinity." The other is the White House.
Virgin Galactic will not be paying the state just $1 million per year forever. After five years the payments will increase to the point New Mexico's construction costs will be paid off in 20 years.
The southern New Mexicans who will be helping pay for the spaceport through a gross receipts tax will be from any county or municipality that wants to become "a member of the spaceport team."
Legislation currently being drafted allows anywhere from a one-sixteenth to a one-half cent gross receipts tax to help pay for the spaceport. Twenty-five percent of that will remain in the community for spaceport-related activities.
As for safety, Virgin Galactic airplanes and railroads never have had a fatality and they will take the same care with their space program.
Their space plane will be launched from the air, dropping from a mother ship. NASA's problems have been due to ground launches. NASA preferred air launches, but abandoned the plan because ICBM rockets, which could do the job, already were available.
NASA would still like to get into air launches and is considering buying its astronauts seats on Virgin Galactic flights for training purposes.
Designer Burt Rutan has solved the reentry problems NASA has had by creating a feathering effect in the plane's design that allows it to float back into the atmosphere like a shuttlecock. The design corrects problems automatically, instead of having to do it manually or with computers.
The spaceship is made of a new carbon composite material that is far better than aluminum, which requires tile insulation because aluminum expands when it gets hot.
And SpaceShipTwo will be much more dependable because it has only 33 moving parts, compared with the shuttle's 400,000.
From listening to their questions, perhaps the greatest fear of lawmakers is not that the spaceships will crash, but that the business will, and New Mexico will look like a fool for getting involved in a venture with sky high ambitions and a stratospheric price tag.
Virgin responds that it has a strong business plan and is investing more in its spacecraft than New Mexico is in the spaceport
WED, 1-25-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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