Inside the Capitol

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Does Spaceport Have a Chance?

WED, 2-18-11

Spaceport America may end up being the most important item this Legislature considers. Yes, everyone said his session would be about New Mexico's economy and jobs, jobs, jobs. But that's what they say every year.
Evidently no one realized that new Gov. Susana Martinez would see little or no merit in what is going on out there. Yes, it has been a major Las Cruces and New Mexico State University promotion for some 20 years. But maybe all of that went over her head. She was busy fighting drug cartels. Someone should have told her.
Seldom has New Mexico ever had the opportunity to get onto the ground floor of any major industry. We came close with the personal computer industry when Bill Gates and Bob Allen started Microsoft in Albuquerque because that's where things were happening.
But no one had the ability to realize that potential, otherwise any of us would have been willing to pull together the $35,000 they needed at the time. Later we also realized they needed a much bigger talent pool than we have in New Mexico.
This time, we've made the investment - almost $200 million in a runway, a terminal and hangars. The runway is completed and has seen the arrival of Spaceship 2, with hundreds of celebrities present. The terminal and hangars will be ready later this year.
Part of the mill levies passed by Dona Ana and Sierra counties will go toward math and science education. Meanwhile, competitions are being held for students to send experiments into space.
New Mexico now has the basics for that electronic talent pool Gates and Allen needed when they were here in the 1960s. Santa Fe's cluster of small electronic industries has been written up in high-technology magazines.
Needed now is someone in the state Economic Development Department foresighted enough to organize such people throughout the state and help develop them into a miniature Silicon Valley by providing the resources they need instead of spending that money on entertaining business moguls.
So our basics are in place. But will this be another signature Bill Richardson initiative that Martinez will deep six or delay so she can put her stamp on it?
Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, slated to be the spaceport's biggest tenant, surprised many of us recently by announcing plans for a major hotel at the spaceport. It was billed as Branson's first announcement of the hotel. It wasn't, but the surprise factor still was significant.
Richardson and Branson had developed a fast friendship but relations with Gov. Martinez had appeared nonexistent. My gut feeling was that we soon would see an announcement from Branson that he is being heavily courted to base his trips to the edge of space in the United Arab Emirates, Finland or some other suitor.
This development is very encouraging. We may stay on track. In October, Branson brought 60 of his travel agents from throughout the world to Southern New Mexico to see the spaceport and to explore the tourist attractions in surrounding counties. Branson figured that every person paying $200,000 for a space flight will bring along six or more family members to share the experience.
This will give the families something to do while familiarizing the travel agents with attractions they can recommend to other clients.
Other activities also are occurring at the spaceport. The 2010 Legislature passed a measure limiting liability for launch operators. UP Aerospace sent high school and college experiments into near space last May.
In August, the Federal Aeronautics Administration made New Mexico State University the hub of a national research coalition to address challenges of the commercial space industry. And in September, Congress directed NASA to help develop the commercial space industry while it concentrates on deep space exploration.
Original projections were that the spaceship would be ready to fly over a year ahead of spaceport completion. But the spaceport has stayed closer to its timetable. It should be ready to go for the first spaceship ride if the current administration doesn't slow it down too much.



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