Inside the Capitol

Monday, March 31, 2008

4-14 Sierra County Spaceport vote, April 22

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- A do-or-die juncture for Spaceport America occurs on April 22, when voters in Sierra County decide whether they want to become part of the team sponsoring New Mexico's entry into space.
Part of the deal creating the spaceport effort was that two of the three counties surrounding the spaceport would create a taxing district by voting to levy a quarter percent on gross receipts, commonly called a sales tax. It amounts to 25 cents on $100 spent.
Dona Ana County approved the tax last spring, with Las Cruces going for it in a big way and voters in the southern part of the county making it a close election. Otero County has not set a date for a vote.
So far, Truth or Consequences, in Sierra County, has been a very enthusiastic supporter of the spaceport. Signs at each end of town proclaim it as the gateway to space.
But the vote is expected to be close. Testimony to a recent county commission meeting indicated many people are solidly behind the spaceport. They just don't want to be part of paying for it.
The spaceport is a big investment. The state already has fronted most of the money. But it wants some local buy-in. That tax would also be levied on new industries attracted by the spaceport.
Those industries are most likely to locate in the counties being asked to tax themselves. Spaceport backers predict $1 billion in economic growth and 2,250 new jobs in the region within the first five years of operation.
It also is a risk. There is big interest at this time in commercial space travel and research. But the industry still is in its infancy, with many questions still to be answered.
What happens if Sierra County voters reject the tax? The marketing plan for selling the tax suggests that will be the end of the spaceport. But it seems likely there is a fallback position.
Even though ground has not been broken, much has already happened. Virgin Galactic has been signed on as the anchor tenant and a design has been completed.
New Mexico can be considered the frontrunner in the spaceport race. Most other possible entries are using existing airport facilities. That gives them a head start but they have limiting factors that a new "purpose-built" facility won't have.
In addition to that advantage, New Mexico has altitude, which makes the atmosphere easier to escape. We have the strongest governmental support.
We have wide open spaces and neighboring White Sands Missile Range as a partner for support and telemetry. And we have a partnership with Sir Richard Branson's space tourist company that appears stable and has a proven space vehicle.
But there is competition anxious to overtake us. Branson wants multiple sites for Virgin Galactic. He would like to have launch facilities near population centers with plenty of rich adventurers wanting a ride in space.
The Europeans are planning a spaceport, possibly in Sweden or Scotland. Dubai plans a spaceport and has zero money worries. Spaceport Singapore is being promoted. Japan and China are both getting into space.
In the United States, Mojave, in California already has a spaceport license, as do several other hopefuls attached to existing government space or air bases. Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Texas and Florida are busy.
Branson isn't the only billionaire with dreams of space. Jeff Bezos, founder of, is building a spacecraft and launch facility near Van Horn, in West Texas. The company is called Blue Origin.
Google is sponsoring the next X Prize competition with $30 million for the first company to soft land a vehicle on the moon and rove the lunar surface transmitting data back to Earth.
Elon Musk, founder of Pay Pal and numerous other companies, has founded Space X to help humanity become a spacefaring nation. Videogame developer John Carmack has started Armadillo Aerospace to develop suborbital and orbital vehicles.
It may be a crapshoot, but we're already in the game and have some advantages. It's no time to quit.
MON, 4-14-08

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



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