Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

2-27 Spaceport Blastoff

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- New Mexico's spaceport is ready to blast off. The 2006 Legislature appropriated $100 million over three years to provide the bulk of the project funding.
It also reauthorized $8.6 million originally appropriated in the mid-1990s for space-related economic development activities. It will be used for planning and design of the spaceport.
Legislation was passed allowing cities and counties in southern New Mexico to tax themselves in order to help fund the spaceport. And the state was authorized to invest in the companies NASA chooses to build the successor to the space shuttle, if that business is brought to the state.
The one appropriation not passed was a $250 million transportation package that included $25 million for roads and runways at and around the spaceport. Failure to pass that legislation may be the most likely reason we could see a special legislative session sometime this year.
But even without that money, Rick Homans, the state Economic Development Department secretary, says the state has enough money to begin funding the project. The commitment to the spaceport by lawmakers was obvious, according to Homans, so there is no reason not to proceed.
The failure of the transportation appropriation was not the fault of the spaceport funding. The commuter railway funding in the bill would have encountered significant debate and the Senate ran out of time for that luxury.
Homans was superbly prepared for lawmaker questions about the spaceport. Prior to the beginning of the session, this column began posing some of the major questions that needed to be asked.
Those questions were well-covered by legislators from both houses in a large joint hearing on the opening day of the session, when very little normally happens.
Present for the hearing were heads of the companies who would be doing business with the spaceport. Once those questions were out of the way, the package of bills necessary to get the spaceport off the ground, or underground as the case happens to be, moved quietly through the Legislature.
One of the major concerns with the spaceport was why it has to be publicly financed when a billionaire entrepreneur will be its anchor tenant. The answer given was that the spaceport will be no different from airports, which are built with public funds, but with private companies paying to use them.
The main difference seems to be that most of the public money for spaceports, so far, has come from states rather than the federal government, which primarily funds airports.
But from looking at NASA's major facilities in Florida, Texas and California, it's likely federal money would have built this spaceport in a large state, and not in New Mexico. Florida and California were two of New Mexico's main competitors in landing the Virgin Atlantic business.
Although most New Mexicans are under the impression we are building the nation's first commercial spaceport, that's not the case. Twelve years ago, the Legislature was approached by several small companies with stories about how the communications satellite business was going to take off in a huge way and there would soon be a shortage of launch pads.
New Mexico appropriated $10 million to get started on a spaceport.. (Remember that $8.6 million leftover money from the mid-'90s?) Several states got their spaceports up and going before New Mexico. And at that point, the need for new satellites began to dwindle.
Cell phone technology improved and the industry wasn't taken over by expensive, bulky satellite phones as expected. Satellite technology also improved and they didn't have to be replaced as often as expected.
We were lucky on that one and saved nearly all our money. With the attraction of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, New Mexico is way out in front in the passenger spaceflight race.
It's still a risk. But with Branson in our corner, the possibilities for success appear much better than any previous spaceport ventures.
MON, 2-27-06

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

I'll be out of office the rest of the week. Can be reached by email or cell 505-699-9982.


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