Editorial: Final Frontier is here-17 years in the making, flights from Spaceport America now a turning point for NM economy

Except for a slight weather delay, it was a seemingly flawless flight into history with the world watching.

Virgin Galactic’s mothership VMS Eve, with VSS Unity attached, took off from Spaceport America at 8:40 a.m. last Sunday with company founder Richard Branson, two pilots and three other crew members strapped into Unity’s cabin. Forty-five minutes later, Unity broke away, fired up its motors and shot into space before descending gently back to a landing on the Spaceport runway, a giant leap toward commercial passenger service into space.

“Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,” Branson said to cheers after landing.

The cheers were well-deserved, both for Virgin Galactic and New Mexico officials – beginning with then-Gov. Bill Richardson – who had the vision and determination to place their bets, along with political capital and taxpayer money, on a potential new industry. “It was a long shot,” Richardson said. “We waited a long time, and it required patience. But we stuck with it.”

That involved more than $225 million from the state’s coffers to build the futuristic spaceport and find money to keep it operating even as Branson’s company struggled to master the technology for Sunday’s epic flight. As Richardson put it, Branson did his part after their famous handshake deal in the desert. Virgin Galactic invested more than $1 billion and overcame a tragic test flight accident in 2014. It took 17 long years from a sales call in London by Richardson’s economic development director, Rick Homans, to reach the point of Sunday’s flight.

Richardson and Homans both said that now is the time to ramp up New Mexico’s efforts for space tourism. “New Mexico is going to have to be even more aggressive and more visionary to stay out front,” Homans said.

Alicia Keyes, the state’s current economic development secretary, is on board. “We’ve been preparing for this for more than 16 years, and now it’s time to focus on the future of space tourism, which can be a magnet for many more companies to operate out of the spaceport,” she said. “It’s all about diversifying our economy.”

If things go according to plan, that’s not far off.

Virgin Galactic plans to begin commercial service for paying passengers early next year, after a four-month hiatus for upgrades and maintenance on both Unity and the mothership. Hundreds have signed up to buy tickets at $250,000 apiece, including A-Listers like Tom Hanks, Katy Perry and Brad Pitt.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos is set to fly July 29 from West Texas with three passengers aboard the New Shepard rocket, kicking off commercial service for his company, Blue Origin. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to launch four passengers in September on a three-day orbital flight around earth.

So the competition Virgin Galactic has said is both welcome and essential to the industry is already here.

An initiative announced last week is one example of ways New Mexico is working to capitalize on last Sunday’s historic achievement. NewSpace New Mexico announced the launch of a new innovation hub in Albuquerque to grow the state’s space industry. Called Unite and Ignite Space, it is housed in an 8,700-square-foot facility near the Albuquerque International Sunport and will provide co-working areas, access to resources, meeting spaces and networking events to facilitate collaborations among space-related companies and government agencies.

Unite and Ignite was created through a partnership including NewSpace, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the University of New Mexico’s space-focused research center COSMIAC. It is backed by $11 million in federal funding Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., helped secure. “This is really the start of something big for our nation and for the world,” Heinrich said.

So yes, we have momentum. Networks and news channels covered Sunday’s launch live, people gathered at watch parties and vehicles started pulling into the access road to Spaceport America at 3:30 a.m. the morning of the launch. John and Delia Comacho of El Paso were among those who preferred seeing the event live to television or streaming. Delia Comacho said watching the mothership take to the skies carrying Unity on its journey to space “gave me a sense of hope. It’s like a new frontier.”

It is, indeed. It began as a gamble by Richardson and Branson, but we now find ourselves on the edge of a frontier with challenges and possibilities for a better economy and a better world that we can’t yet imagine.

For perspective, it was on Dec. 17, 1903, that Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C. Considered a remarkable achievement, on their fourth try their aircraft flew 852 feet and stayed aloft for 59 seconds. Now, we are on the verge of space tourism, discussions of suborbital flights connecting spaceports around the world and even a Mars mission.

In the words of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, “the sky is no longer the limit.”

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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