Inside the Capitol

Sunday, July 15, 2012

7-20 Spaceport America gets some competition

72012 Space Abu Dhabi

SANTA FE – Spaceport America has some competition. Nearly four years ago, my wife and I were stranded for 17 days in Abu Dhabi as Jeanette underwent surgery for a broken femur.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the most progressive of Arab countries. Dubai is about 50 miles away in the neighboring emirate. Dubai is showy for tourists. Abu Dhabi is all business. No fancy buildings. Just businessmen looking for good investments.
Arabic and English are the two official languages of the country. Everyone I met spoke good English. There were an adequate number of English language TV channels and a good English language daily newspaper.
Abu Dhabi was very interested in Spaceport America and wanted to build one of its own as soon as economic conditions looked right. I've written several columns since then warning that if we don't move quickly on our spaceport and promote it vigorously, we'll lose out to more spirited competitors.
The competitor with the most resources is Abu Dhabi. It has now sprung into action. Aabar, an investment firm, wholly owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, has bought 37 percent of Virgin Galactic. Aabar now has exclusive regional rights to host Virgin Galactic tourism and scientific research space flights, along with advanced science, technology and higher education programs.
That doesn't put us in direct competition. We aren't in the same region. I happen to know from experience that we are 12 time zones apart. But many of Sir Richard Branson's over 500 "astronauts" he has signed up to take to the edge of space are from foreign countries that may be closer to Abu Dhabi than to New Mexico.
Branson also just announced last week that he is building a new generation of satellite launchers that will cut the cost of launching a 500-pound payload into orbit from nearly $40 million to about $10 million. WhiteKnightTwo will carry LauncherOne to 50,000 feet where it will separate and fire into orbit.
WhiteKnightTwo will be housed at Spaceport America but Branson emphasized that it will have the capability to fly from anywhere with a runway long enough and wide enough to accommodate it.
Back at Abu Dhabi, Virgin Galactic and Aabar have appointed none other than Steve Landeene as chief advisor for planning and implementing the spaceport. Landeene took New Mexico through those steps before being forced to resign by the New Mexico Spaceport Authority board after a disagreement over the purchase of additional land necessary for spaceport expansion.
That occurred during the final year of Gov. Bill Richardson's administration. Obviously Branson was an admirer of Landeene's work. No one could be more qualified to build the world's second purpose-built spaceport. Landeene likely won't have to wade through as many environmental impact hearings as he did here so work should proceed quickly.
Many new and exciting spaceflight advances have been taking place recently, the biggest of which was Space X's delivery of a payload to the International Space Station and its safe return with a load of garbage. But none of these have been launched from Spaceport America.
This appears to be a situation similar to attracting film makers to New Mexico. Gov. Susana Martinez has gone from doubting the value of investing in the spaceport to a position of support. But she hasn't gotten excited enough about the subject to get out and hustle tenants as Gov. Richardson did.
We still have Sir Richard hustling for us. He still calls Spaceport America his home base but we know he has a global focus and will be looking to promote other regional spaceports, maybe the next in Finland. And we know he still has his production facilities in California.
One thing Branson has done for us lately is to hold an industry day at Spaceport America for interested suppliers. Four hundred registered. Two hundred were chosen, including a number of New Mexico companies, to be briefed on Virgin Galactic's needs.


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