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New Mexico spaceport seeks 70 percent budget hike

SANTA FE, N.M. — The CEO of New Mexico’s commercial spacecraft launch facility is seeking a 70 percent budget increase next year, stepping up pressure for more taxpayer support as lead tenant Virgin Galactic inches closer to its goal of flying tourists into the lower reaches of space.

Spaceport American CEO Dan Hicks said this week it’s not realistic for the facility near the Army’s White Sands Missile Range to be 100 percent financially self-sufficient.

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority is seeking a $700,000 increase next year to its current operating budget of nearly $1 million. Beyond space tourism, he said the facility is being positioned to compete with spaceports in several states for some of the booming private market for launching of small satellites.

New Mexico spaceport managers also have suggested $75 million in construction projects over the next five years at the aerospace terminal, runway and vertical rocket-launch facility. Hicks said he hopes plans to add a welcoming center, taxiway, processing center for satellite payloads and more can be accomplished with a combination of state, federal and commercial spending. Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved up to $10 million in capital spending for a satellite testing and development hangar.

Virgin Galactic has hundreds of tourist reservations for its planned space flights but no launch date as it executes the final stages of powered testing for its winged vehicle, designed for passengers or scientific payloads.

Hicks expects the first passenger flight to near-space could take place next year, although there has been a cautious approach to a series of test flights this year out of Virgin Galactic facilities in Mohave, Calif. The CEO foresees intense public interest in an initial flight, alluding to preparations for public viewing from nearby towns.

Taxpayers paid for the New Mexico’s state-of-the-art, $220 million spaceport after British billionaire Richard Branson and former state Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, pitched the plan.

Nearly a decade later, unmanned rocket launches are routine at a facility that has yet to live up to billing as a hub for human space travel. The Virgin Galactic program was set back years by a midflight failure over California in 2014 that killed a test pilot.

New Mexico state government income has surged this year largely from a boom in the oil sector in the southeastern part of the state, but there is an ongoing debate over priority spending for aerospace investments, Sen. George Munoz recently said.

“New Mexico is still a poor state,” he said. “It’s tough to make these decisions, these votes for $10 million, when we could say, ‘All right let’s make sure everybody has water, can run water in their house.'”

Virgin Galactic Vice President Jonathan Firth said last week the company has 45 employees assigned to Las Cruces — up from 26 last year — and plans to bring more from California by the time passenger flights commence.

Hicks said the spaceport is well positioned to receive matching funds from the Department of Defense for runway infrastructure as a prospective backup landing area for F-16 jet fighter aircraft.

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