Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

8-7 Spaceport America

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- What a name for a spaceport. New Mexico's gamble on the commercial space industry received a promising boost when promoters changed its name to Spaceport America.
New Mexico isn't the first state into the commercial spaceport business. Five others already are operating, with more to come. None has received federal certification yet. New Mexico hopes to be first in that category.
But New Mexico already has grabbed a name that sends the message that this is America's spaceport. Years ago, the Dallas Cowboys captured the name "America's Team" and the rest of the National Football League will be forever upset.
British entrepreneur Richard Branson had much to do with choosing "Spaceport America." When he was in New Mexico for opening Day of the Legislature last January, he talked about branding and his plans to help brand New Mexico as the capital of commercial space travel.
Later that day, on the way to the site of the state's future spaceport north of Las Cruces, he and state economic development officials came up with the name change.
Southwest Regional Spaceport, the name chosen by economic development officials a few years ago, wasn't bad. It regionalized the spaceport concept. But why not capture the entire country? The name was there for the taking.
Although New Mexico has many competitors in the commercial space market, we appear to be positioned better than other states. Branson's Virgin Galactic isn't the only company in the business of taking tourists into space. But it's the 800 pound gorilla.
As a result of his contract with the developers of X Prize winner, SpaceShipOne, Branson is the first to have a proven spacecraft design. He was the first to start selling seats for the ride into space. And he's far and away the best marketer in the bunch.
Branson's a guy who built a small record shop in London into a recording company, railroad line, airline and now a space fleet. And the names Virgin Records, Virgin Airways and Virgin Galactic have been a part of his success.
Back in the early '90s, startup companies in the rocket business approached more than a dozen state legislatures with big plans for commercial satellite launches. More than a dozen states got into the act wooing those companies and a few actually built launch facilities. New Mexico came close, but decided against it.
Good idea. New technology reduced the number of satellites that were needed, so the new spaceports had very little business. It appears now that space flight for very rich people is a viable business.
Virgin Galactic has signed up hundreds of future passengers willing to pay $200,000 for a 65-mile-high trip and five minutes of weightlessness.
Think that's steep? Another company already has sent three people to the International Space Station on Russian rockets at $20 million apiece. And now, for just $10 million more, passengers can take a space walk.
So it appears New Mexico has landed the best anchor for its spaceport. The downside is that it is costing us more for the privilege. Branson goes in style, so he wants a stylish spaceport. But then, shouldn't Spaceport America be the best?
Spaceport America already is attracting other tenants. UP Aerospace is planning the spaceport's first launch in September. An October launch will carry the ashes of astronaut Gordon Cooper and actor James Doohan, who portrayed Scotty on Star Trek. They will be accompanied by the ashes of some 100 other paying customers.
Beyond-Earth Enterprises has relocated from Colorado Springs to Roswell. It will launch its rockets from Spaceport America, beginning with a November 15 launch carrying mementos it sells for as little as $34.95.
U.K.-based Starchaser Industries is setting up operations west of Las Cruces. It plans to launch passengers into space but will also build a "22nd century" rocket theme park and technology center, called Rocket City, at exit 116, off Interstate 10.
MON, 8-07-06

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



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