Thursday, January 06, 2011
Spaceport Director Steps Down
By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
LAS CRUCES — New Mexico Spaceport Authority board members Wednesday reluctantly accepted the resignation of executive director Rick Homans, whose departure was requested by Gov. Susana Martinez's administration.
At least five of the seven board members, including Republicans D. Kent Evans of Las Cruces and Toots Green of Alamogordo, said they would have preferred that Homans be allowed to stay in his $174,000 per-year post while construction of Spaceport America in southern Sierra County is completed and a replacement is found.
"I really felt in my heart that it would stay status quo. I'm really surprised that this would happen," Evans said after the meeting. "There's a lot of things going on, and it's very important to pay attention ... to make sure they happen promptly."
State contractors are completing construction of the $200 million project's terminal and hangar facility, which is to be occupied by anchor tenant Virgin Galactic, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's company.
The spaceport, located 25 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences, is one of former Gov. Bill Richardson's signature projects, and he touted it as a major engine of economic development and a way to raise the state's global profile.
In an emotional farewell, Homans told board members that, once the spaceport is completed later this year, the "harder work" will begin, including attracting more customers and manufacturers and turning the site into a major tourist destination.
"We have to be the leader of this new commercial spaceflight industry. All this is possible, but only if the governor leads the way," Homans said. "She has to believe in the project and its massive potential to create jobs and impact education. She has to become its biggest champion and rally her administration to support this effort. There is no middle ground."
Angela Heisel, spokesman for Economic Development secretary nominee Jon Barela, who will chair the Spaceport Authority, said, "The plans are to continue with the development and construction in an orderly fashion, with no plans of shutting down. ... Despite Homans' claims, he is not indispensable to this project. ... The entire project remains intact."
Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell, when sent a copy of Homan's comments, said the governor's Spaceport Review Team consists of business and space professionals and received input from several former astronauts, including Harrison "Jack" Schmitt and space shuttle commander Sid Gutierrez.
"The governor believes astronauts have more insight into space travel than Bill Richardson's deputy campaign manager," Darnell said.
Spaceport Authority board members said they have not been informed of Martinez administration's plans to choose Homans' successor, or about their own futures on the board. Heisel later said the executive director position will be advertised. A search committee will include former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, Las Cruces businessman Tom Hutchinson and Albuquerque businessman Sherman McCorkle.
Heisel said the administration is reviewing the board's membership and "assessing what changes need to be made."
Martinez recently made comments that she wanted an audit done of the Virgin Galactic contract and spaceport expenses. Heisel said those comments were made because "It is important to exercise diligence on any project, particularly one of this size."
In an e-mailed statement, George Whitesides, chief executive officer and president of Virgin Galactic, said the company looks "forward to working with the Martinez administration to continue to advance New Mexico's leadership in commercial space."
Homans, the former secretary of the state Taxation and Revenue Department, was designated chairman of the Spaceport Authority and interim executive director following the resignation of predecessor Steve Landeene last April. In June, he stepped down as a Cabinet secretary and was appointed executive director of the Spaceport Authority.