Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

1-9 Is Spaceport Worth It?

Mon, 1-09-06

SANTA FE -- Is a New Mexico spaceport worth the risk? An article in a Business Week magazine early last year predicted it won't work.
The article noted that all three flights of SpaceShipOne experienced technical difficulties that would have grounded a flight with paying passengers. It predicted that such problems with beefing up the ship to carry five passengers, or more, will produce similar delays that will run its costs well over the projected $100 million dollars.
The article also said its research indicated that only 500-800 Americans will be willing to pay $100,000 for a flight. On that count, Business Week appears to have been proven wrong. Virgin Galactic says 100 people already have forked over $200,000 for a ticket and almost 40,000 more have put down a $20,000 deposit on a ride.
If those figures are correct, Business week thinks Richard Branson will be in the black on his venture.
But all that is contingent on New Mexico coming up with $225 million to build the spaceport to Branson's specifications. Branson's only charge for the construction will be a $1 million a year lease payment for 20 years, which Branson will increase if business is good.
So Branson may have his end figured out. And if it doesn't quite work, his Virgin Group consists of over 200 companies that brought in $10.7 billion last year. That's more than New Mexico made in revenues last year.
And what about poor New Mexico, which continually ranks near the bottom on economic indexes? Presently, we are rolling in severance tax revenues from oil and gas receipts. We can afford to build a spaceport, but is that the right choice to make?
Lawmakers will be convening in Santa Fe in a matter of days to consider that question. It is a short legislative session so the decision must be made by Feb. 16.
It isn't as though lawmakers won't have some other priorities to consider. State officials have always said that the best investment we can make is in the education of our children. Current state and local expenditures per child rank New Mexico near the bottom despite some modest efforts by our current governor to increase them. Should that be where the money goes?
Unfortunately, children's education is a continuing expense and windfall oil and gas revenues aren't. Crumbling buildings could be repaired or rebuilt. College tuition funds could be increased.
So maybe a big gamble like this is the way to go, if it's not foolhardy. Second opinions should be sought into this uncharted territory. It would be ironic if the space travel business turned out to have better margins than airline travel.
And are there better alternatives to what Branson is proposing for a spaceport? He wants it underground in order to reduce air conditioning costs. He evidently pays for air conditioning, while we pay the extra cost of digging the hole.
And what about Cannon Air Base in Clovis? Everyone is looking for a new mission. How about making that the spaceport? It already has facilities to go with its wide open spaces and huge bombing image.
And the huge logo of the spaceport, that will be seen from outer space. It is to look like Richard Branson's eyeball. How about making it look like the Zia sun symbol, the state's logo? That suggestion may not be a cost-saving one however. Zia pueblo likely would want compensation. Branson might pay a pretty price for his idea.
Gov. Bill Richardson says Branson might be willing to do some other nice things for our state if he were to locate his spaceport here. New Mexico has long wanted direct flights to major cities on the East and West coasts.
That is something Branson likely would want too if he were to locate a major business here. His Virgin Airways could be the perfect vehicle to do that.



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