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Lawmakers express concern about Spaceport’s costs

SPACEPORT AMERICA – A decade after New Mexico decided to invest in the private space race, state lawmakers held a hearing at Spaceport America to explore the future of the facility.

“We’re being told if we just invest some more money that this thing will be fully operational and more self-sustaining, but for a lot of us legislators we’re concerned about how much money and over what period of time,” said state Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque.

The Legislative Finance Committee questioned the new CEO of Spaceport America, Dan Hicks, about the business plan for the facility, where Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant.

“We have the ability to be a commercial hub,” Hicks told the committee.

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He touted the advantages New Mexico has over competing spaceport projects in other states, including a large block of protected airspace because of nearby White Sands Missile Range, and a dry, sunny climate.

But Hicks said that, like airports, the spaceport needs some government funding to function.

During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers appropriated $379,900 in general funds and $5.4 million in other revenues for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said she wanted the spaceport to be more than a landlord and expand its commercial contracts, including those involving payloads sent into space. Three of the four top private space companies have used the spaceport, including Space X, Up Aerospace, and EXOS Aerospace.

Virgin Galactic’s lease payments on the hangar will increase from $1 million to $3 million in the coming year. The company plans to grow its staff from 20 to 100 employees once commercial launches begin. Jonathan Firth, executive vice president of Virgin Galactic, said the company is committed to commercial space travel despite a midflight accident in 2014 that killed the co-pilot and injured the pilot.

Virgin Galactic has sold more than 600 tickets for future trips to the edge of space and plans to attempt another launch in 2018. Before some setbacks, the company’s goal was for commercial flights to begin as early as 2010.

But a decade after the state and voters in Doña Ana and Sierra counties agreed to spend $220 million to build Spaceport America, lawmakers said many taxpayers question whether ongoing support should be spent elsewhere.

“We can’t fix highways and we’re talking about going to the moon,” said Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia.

Despite their concerns, several legislators expressed confidence in the new leadership at the Spaceport. Hicks has been at the helm less than a year and comes to the job after a 34-year stint at White Sands Missile Range.

He told legislators that none of the private spaceports in any state, including new competitors in Florida and Virginia, is self-sustaining.

“The return on investment is going to be creating jobs,” Hicks said.

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