Inside the Capitol

Sunday, December 16, 2012

12-19 Why isn't spaceport taking off?

121912 Spaceport ripoff

SANTA FE – Is Virgin Galactic preparing to rip off New Mexico? Maybe so but my view of how the spaceport came about argues for Richard Branson not being the heavy in all of this.
As I remember it, 20 years ago the city of Las Cruces, the Chamber of Commerce and New Mexico State University began a joint effort to build a spaceport somewhere in Dona Ana County.
I went down to Cruces for some conferences attended by business people, scientists and politicians. They got a bill introduced into the Legislature to fund a modest spaceport near White Sands Missile Range, which promised to provide what assistance it could.
Small aerospace companies testified to legislative committees that they were ready to start testing and if we would build it, they would come. Evidently the companies also testified in other states because soon there was a committee of the National Lieutenant Governors' Association devoted to spaceports. Lt. Gov. Casey Luna was New Mexico's representative.
In 1995, Gary Johnson became New Mexico's governor. He wasn't interested in rockets. He wanted to widen roads in Republican areas of the state that he felt had been ignored under Democratic administrations.
Eight years later, Gov. Bill Richardson was elected and the spaceport talk picked up again. Other states hadn't gotten hopelessly ahead of us because they were still talking about remodeling old airports.
Gov. Richardson envisioned a purpose-built spaceport for New Mexico. The idea appealed to Virgin Galactic's Sir Richard Branson. An elegant, futuristic terminal building would perfectly suit his identity.
The situation at this point becomes cloudy. Richardson and Branson huddled behind closed doors. Both were excited about the possibilities. From all indications, there was an atmosphere of trust as they imagined what could be. The two were both hustlers. They talked each other's language.
The timetable for completing the spaceport and Branson's spacecraft were unrealistically compressed. Initially Gov. Richardson still would have been in office when the first flights took place.
There appear to be no good records of what commitments were made. It was at about that time that Branson signed a deal with Scaled Composits, which had just won the Ansari X-Prize for flying to the edge of space twice in three days.
Did Branson promise Richardson that if he built a spaceport, Virgin would be the anchor tenant? The evidence suggests that is what happened since Virgin participated heavily in design of the terminal building. It also organized dedication of the runway and the terminal.
Scaled composits was to make Virgin a five-seat plane, which would take paying passengers on the same trip. An accident involving three deaths early in the development phase slowed the pace for Virgin. And numerous delays slowed the spaceport construction.
As a result Gov. Susan Martinez is two years into her term and neither the spaceport nor spacecraft are completed. To complicate matters Gov. Martinez has never been on the same page as Sir Richard regarding the spaceport.
It would be difficult for two people to have more different personalities. Martinez was unsure about the spaceport from the beginning. Branson seemed to take over as chief spokesman and promoter for the spaceport.
This column has warned for the past two years that many other countries and states are back in the game ever since Richardson left office. New space companies start testing every month and none of them are coming here.
Branson is not pleased. The emirate of Abu Dhabi not only is building a spaceport, it has bought a big chunk of Virgin Galactic. Branson already has said that will be his headquarters for the Eastern Hemisphere.
Virgin Galactic also is upset that the Legislature has not limited liability for spacecraft parts suppliers. Gov. Martinez says if the Legislature passes it, she will sign it. But she needs to hustle that through the Legislature rather than spending so much time and political capital on immigrants' driver's licenses.


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