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Sale would likely kill the Spaceport

It is a bad idea to sell Spaceport America, as a bill sponsored by Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, has proposed. To do so would throw away 20 years of planning, put the project behind at least 10 years and likely kill the spaceport.

The bill has already been publicized in the commercial space industry and has sent a signal that New Mexico – much to the delight of our competitors in Texas, California, and Florida – may not be serious about being a key player in the very nascent, but very important, commercial space business.

I began to support Spaceport America professionally in 1995, shortly after I moved to New Mexico from Houston, where I worked at Johnson Space Center. I served on then-Gov. Gary Johnson’s Technical Excellence Committee to provide him guidance on the idea of building a commercial spaceport in New Mexico.

Then, for two years (1996-1998), I managed a team, under a contract with the state, to write the original business plan for a New Mexico spaceport.

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Now, as CEO of the company that sent the first commercial text message to a rocket, which was launched to space from Spaceport America, I am a customer of Spaceport America and a supplier to Virgin Galactic. In fact, NASA has scheduled my company to test the first commercial Wi-Fi service onboard Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft in space above New Mexico.

Munoz struck a nerve with his bill because many New Mexicans, including me, are frustrated with the slow pace of the development of the spaceport. We need to come up with innovative ways to optimize the use of our world-class facility, located 25 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences.

And it is important that the spaceport be as accessible as possible to all New Mexicans, and that it benefit the young people of New Mexico.

But selling the spaceport is not the answer.

Rocket science is very difficult and dangerous, but it is worth it. The tragic crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip 2 set-back their launches from our spaceport one to two years. But Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic, and my company are pressing on.

I did my own business analysis on selling the spaceport and concluded swiftly that it is not a good idea. First of all, who would buy it? There are currently no interested buyers. Spaceports, just like airports are transportation hubs and economic development engines owned and managed by municipalities or other government organizations almost exclusively.

Second, if the spaceport were sold, it would negate the all-important Memorandum of Understanding with White Sands Missile Range. Securing that MOA took 15 years, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a new owner to renegotiate.

Selling the spaceport would also negate its launch license with the Federal Aviation Administration. If the spaceport is sold, and our agreements with WSMR and the FAA are voided, rocket company customers like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX will be forced to launch from other spaceports in Texas, Florida and California.

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My company is based in New Mexico. One of the main reasons I am trying to make a go of it in New Mexico is because Spaceport America is here.

As a result of my business being here and engaging with the community, the first commercial text to space was actually sent by advanced physics students at the Bosque School in Albuquerque using my company’s technology and our rocket payload, which was launched from Spaceport America.

If Spaceport America is sold, I will be forced to launch from Florida, California, Texas, and international spaceports like the one in French Guiana in South America — not from New Mexico.

If companies like mine leave the state, it will make it more difficult for New Mexico kids to participate in and learn about the science of space launches. That would be a tremendous disservice to our kids.

For our kids, our economy and our future, selling Spaceport America is a bad idea.

M. Brian Barnett is a former NASA aerospace technologist.


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