LAS CRUCES – Additional funding to prepare for the arrival of Virgin Galactic’s spaceflights and a measure to increase confidentiality for tenants will be on Spaceport America’s wish list when the New Mexico Legislature convenes in January, 2018.
Dan Hicks, Spaceport America CEO, told attendees at the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce 2017 Space Update Luncheon on Thursday that more spaceports are poised to enter the commercial space industry, with 10 other licensed spaceports operating and an additional nine applications pending with the Federal Aviation Administration. And, with Virgin Galactic set to begin manned flights as soon as next year, more funding is needed to accommodate the increased traffic expected to follow, he said.
Hicks said he will seek an additional $600,000 from the Legislature to increase staff levels and continue with infrastructure improvements. At a cost of nearly $220 million, the taxpayer-financed Spaceport America opened in 2011. At the time, officials envisioned a new commercial space economy that would transform southern New Mexico. That economy has yet to come to fruition, but officials are hopeful.
The funding is necessary to stay on par with other spaceports around the country, Hicks said. With 16 people currently on the Spaceport America staff, Hicks hopes to increase that number to 26 “very quickly” to accommodate Virgin Galactic’s planned move to New Mexico.
He pointed to Florida, which has a $20 million operating fund, a $7 million financing fund and a $20 million infrastructure fund. Florida gets $18.9 million in state appropriations and an additional $19 million in state grants. It generates $2.8 million in customer revenue.
Virginia, another competitor, has a $25 million operating budget, state appropriations of $11.8 million and customer revenue of $16.1 million. California has a $7.3 million operating budget with roughly $500,000 in state appropriation and $8.1 million in customer revenues.
New Mexico’s Spaceport America has a $6.1 million operating budget with a current state appropriation of $375,000 with $600,000 in local gross receipts taxes generated solely from Doña Ana and Sierra counties. Customer revenue generates $2.1 million.
Other than New Mexico, the state figures Hicks listed are taken from public records in 2014 and do not reflect any increases in their funding since that time, Hicks said. That makes it even more urgent that New Mexico increase funding to allow Spaceport America to continue to grow, he said.
“We’ve got a good revenue stream. We’ve got good clients. We’ve launched over 100 rockets,” Hicks said. The state should “continue to support this economic engine” with an increase in funding, he added.
In addition to funding, spaceport officials hope the Legislature will consider passing a Commercial Spaceport Protection Act, to provide confidentiality to spaceport tenants who are concerned disclosing too much information will harm their business in a very competitive field.
A similar measure, the Spaceport Confidential Records Act, was sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, during the last session but was withdrawn when complaints arose over the spaceport’s transparency. It would have added a new exemption to the state public records act for companies doing business at the spaceport.
Hicks said that under current laws, companies at the spaceport have to provide information that other businesses in the state don’t and that makes it more difficult to attract new tenants. The new proposal would be similar in nature to Papen’s bill. Spaceport America, constructed and funded by the state, is required to fully disclose almost all its activity and would continue to do so, at least with regard to finances, employees, spending and operations, Hicks said. The measure would assure proprietary information of the tenant companies would not become public.
“The commercial space industry is very invested in keeping their secrets,” Hicks said. “Having a spaceport where we can keep those secrets is very important.”
In reviewing the past year, Hicks pointed to 14 launches from the vertical launch area and an additional 60 during the course of the inaugural Spaceport America Cup, an event that saw 1,100 students representing 91 universities from around the globe descend on southern New Mexico to compete with their rocket designs. Two launch system tests were conducted at the spaceport as well as one flight mission and two balloon missions.
A new static rocket motor test facility was constructed in conjunction with UP Aerospace, which is expanding its motor production capabilities at the spaceport, Hicks said. Boeing used the spaceport to test its Starliner, a new crew capsule, and the company has selected two sites on White Sands Missile Range as its primary and secondary landing sites for crewed missions, which will increase its activity at Spaceport America as well, he said.
Virgin Galactic is still testing White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo with glide tests in Mojave, but is expecting to begin flights out of Spaceport America in 2018, if testing continues successfully. White Knight Two is the vehicle that carries SpaceShipTwo, christened VSS Unity, to launch altitude before it engages its engines and powers to the upper atmosphere.
“We will see exciting things from them next year,” Hicks said.
New Mexico Technical College completed its third launch from the spaceport on Nov. 9 and another is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 13, 2018. University of Southern California will be making its third launch attempt on Jan. 3, 2018, in an attempt to fly above the Karman Line, or 330,000 feet.
The aerospace industry related to Spaceport America has created an estimated 100 additional jobs at an average annual salary of $60,000 during the year, Hicks said. The industry continues to grow and is currently valued at $330 billion per year. Roughly 75 percent of that amount is private entrepreneurs investing in aerospace, and can be drawn to Spaceport America in the form of low-earth orbit launches for scientific research in near-zero gravity as well as tourism and in support of university research and aeronautics, he said.
The spaceport is also primed for an increase in orbital launches as single-stage-to-orbit and returnable booster technology advances. In addition, there is long-term possibility in transportation as more spaceports come on line around the globe.
Hicks told the crowd the long-awaited southern road into the spaceport should begin construction by the end of November or early December and be complete by May, 2018. He also said the Spaceport America tours, which shut down about a year ago, would be returning “sometime soon” when details of an agreement with a new tour operator were finalized.
Jason Gibbs may be reached at 575-541-5451, firstname.lastname@example.org or @fjgwriter on Twitter.
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