Inside the Capitol

Monday, January 12, 2009

1-14 Spaceport America Nears Reality

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Spaceport America, north of Las Cruces, took some major steps toward becoming a reality during the past month. Now it's up to a Legislature, in a year of inadequate resources, to finish the job of financing during the next two months.
In mid-December, the spaceport finally obtained its federal license. Five states -- Texas, California, Oklahoma, Florida and Missouri -- beat us to the certification. But that was because those spaceports are additions to facilities that already exist.
Spaceport America is the first spaceport built from scratch and intended to be totally a spaceport. That meant starting from scratch on the license too with time consuming elements such as land acquisition, environmental impact statements and the like.
The next big step was signing a formal lease agreement with the spaceport's anchor tenant Virgin Galactic. Sir Richard Branson's company had been talking big since January 2006 when it announced New Mexico as its base of operations to fly passengers to the edge of space at $200,000 a pop.
But it hadn't been willing to put its name on the dotted line. It promised to sign a lease if Dona Ana County passed a tax assessment to support the spaceport. Dona Ana County delivered on its end of the deal but Virgin signed only a non-binding memorandum of understanding.
So both the Dona Ana County Commission and the state Legislature made their participation contingent on Virgin signing by Dec. 31, 2008. And that's the date when the 20-year lease was signed.
It may not appear that Sir Richard is feeling very lionhearted about Spaceport America. But more likely, he wanted to be as sure as possible that the state of New Mexico would come through on its end of the deal.
There is still another $75 million or so that needs to be appropriated by the Legislature in a year in which it needs to trim a half-billion dollars out of its budget. And with our governor playing musical chairs with his office, who can be sure that a deal will be a deal?
Branson didn't become a multi-billionaire by taking dumb risks. But now, it appears the stars are about to align. It would be foolish for the Legislature not to come through with the rest of the money at this point. The architects' drawings are finished. A contractor has been chosen and ground is to be broken in early spring.
Judging from comments after the lease signing, Virgin officials are delighted. Their news release announced "The state has all the right elements for a successful commercial space operation, including weather, clear airspace, beautiful scenery, great people and a fantastic location and design for Spaceport America."
There is more good news. Other space companies already have been using temporary facilities at the spaceport and are likely to sign leases now that a giant operation has signed on as anchor tenant.
UP Aerospace and Microgravity Enterprise have signed memoranda of understanding. UP Aerospace has already made two successful launches from the spaceport. Armadillo Aerospace and Rocket Racing, Inc. have just announced a partnership to offer vertically-launched suborbital flights from Spaceport America for about $100,000 a ticket.
Disappointments have been few. Voters in Otero County narrowly defeated a tax election that would have put $6.6 million into the spaceport. Alamogordo is on the other side of the White Sands Missile Range and is space-oriented but the two-hour drive in between makes it a little distant to get much benefit.
Starchaser Industries came in with big plans for rocket manufacturing, astronaut training facilities and a theme park near Las Cruses but cooled off when it decided the state was too fixated on Virgin Galactic. It also wasn't forthcoming with the financial records city officials requested before giving it land in an industrial park.
And the much heralded Rocket Racing League hasn't gotten all the sponsors it needs. The current economic climate won't help that.
But everything considered, it appears we're good to go.
WED, 1-14-09

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



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