It was a swing and a miss to get U.S. Space Command’s headquarters in Albuquerque nearly a year ago. As disappointing as that was, New Mexico remains a premier location to build a thriving ecosystem of commerce related to space innovation — the nation’s newest gold rush.
All the things that made New Mexico a merit-based leader for Space Command are still in place — as are the issues that likely held it back. It’s no small irony that a state with massive brain power — perennially top-ranked in such high-tech resources as Ph.D. scientists and federal research dollars per capita — struggles with such basics as public safety and education. The challenge today is to keep the state’s historic role as a key player in the space industry moving forward despite peripheral challenges and setbacks that diminish the state’s standing as an innovation leader.
Last month’s aborted mission of 1,000 new jobs researching and designing satellites at the planned Orion Center off Gibson Boulevard offers an important lesson. Without pointing fingers at the vetting process or questioning if the deal ever really had legs, you have to wonder what other space-related opportunities were lost because the city put a lot of eggs in one basket. Fortunately, there are many others here with an eye on what’s becoming a formidable prize.
The nation has entered a new phase of space-related opportunity. As the Journal reported Dec. 19, the Space Foundation estimates the global space economy expanded by 55% over the past decade, reaching $447 billion in 2020. It’s expected to grow to between $1 trillion and $3 trillion over the next 20-30 years.
The U.S. and world economies are already fundamentally dependent on space technology and operations to maintain basic societal functions. By synchronizing and linking up power grids and communication networks, space technology supplies data to enable city planning, agriculture, public health, transportation and more. The next phase of developing space assets could produce new wonders: harnessing solar energy and beaming photovoltaic energy to Earth or low-gravity manufacturing of biotechnology products.
New Mexico has a leg up to tap the immense economic potential of space. Space-related endeavors at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico and the state’s national laboratories have attracted an impressive array of companies to provide support services to experienced federal entities. The future of the emerging global space industry hinges on such public-private partnerships, according to the third annual “State of the Space Industrial Base” report issued in November. It was co-authored by Col. Eric Felt, head of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate at KAFB.
New Mexico has played a key role in preparing and disseminating the reports. New Space NM, an industry alliance, has hosted two conferences to collect participant input in the past two reports and is now helping to monitor progress on adopting a “whole of government” approach for space industrial development.
And, with regard to public-private partnerships, New Mexico appears ahead of the curve in business development. The Dec. 20 “Building the space industry ecosystem” in the Journal’s Business Outlook enumerates the myriad incubators, accelerators and tech hubs in place to build up New Mexico’s fast-growing commercial space sector.
This all plays to the state’s strengths. New Mexico has a history and synergy of military bases, national labs, research universities and private aerospace enterprises — plus a one-of-a-kind spaceport and the only ground-to-infinity protected airspace outside of the White House.
Hosting Space Command headquarters would have made it easier to build an industrial platform for emerging commercial space projects. But this next generation of economic development remains firmly in our reach. Legislators and policymakers can’t let it become another lost opportunity. Resources to directly support the space industry must be combined with better educational outcomes — still waiting on that education moonshot — more STEM graduates from local universities, lower crime and a host of other quality-of-life issues that have grounded our economy to date.
It’s time New Mexico takes its rightful place as the future of space.
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.