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Gov. Pitches $100M For N.M. Spaceport

By Andrew Webb
Journal Staff Writer
    Gov. Bill Richardson wants the state to spend $100 million to help build the nation's first commercial spaceport in southern New Mexico.
    The Governor's Office confirmed Tuesday it will ask the Legislature for the money over three years to help fund the $225 million spaceport.
    Also on Tuesday, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson announced his plans to base his space tourism operation at the proposed Southwest Regional Spaceport.
    Richardson and Branson will be in Santa Fe today to announce their plans, which are expected to draw worldwide media attention.
    Virgin Galactic has agreed to a 20-year lease at the planned spaceport, with annual payments beginning at $1 million.
    The company intends to launch luxurious spaceships to the far reaches of Earth's atmosphere from New Mexico by 2010.
    The state aims to build the spaceport, beginning in 2007, with $100 million from state severance tax bonds and a combination of federal and local funds.
    Virgin Galactic's decision to locate its main launch facility here will boost the state's economy by millions— possibly billions— of dollars, state officials said Tuesday. They also believe it could lead to the creation of up to 2,300 jobs as other commercial space ventures gravitate to the state.
    "Thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment will be created in the next 20 years as the private sector develops new commercial markets in the space industry in New Mexico," Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans said in London on Tuesday. "Virgin is the beginning, and many other space companies will follow."
    The company said it chose New Mexico because of its climate, low population density, high altitude and the nearby presence of miles of restricted airspace thanks to the adjacent White Sands Missile Range. This enables rockets to launch without the danger of unexpected air traffic.
    The Southwest Regional Spaceport is to be built at Upham, which consists largely of rangeland, about 25 miles south of Truth or Consequences.
    Ninety percent of the 27-square mile spaceport will be built underground, with runways, launchpads and some support buildings on the surface.
    Economic Development Department spokeswoman Katie Roberts said the spaceport would be designed for a range of customers— from small companies like Connecticut-based UP Aerospace and London-based Starchaser, which plan to launch experiments and other payloads into suborbital space beginning next year, to giants like Virgin Galactic, the newest company in Branson's assortment entertainment and airline businesses.
    She said officials would explain today why the spaceport is to be built underground, and outline additional state incentives used to lure Virgin Galactic.
    Spaceport construction would begin after Federal Aviation Administration approval, which requires studies of the potential environmental impact of such activities, Roberts said.
    Tim Sanders, a Bureau of Land Management district manager in Las Cruces, said the BLM has tentatively approved the first phase of spaceport use.
    The Legislature has appropriated about $11 million to various spaceport planning processes and other activities, said Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee. He said Richardson and Homans briefed the committee about their plans earlier this year.
    "I can't speak for the entire Legislature, but I'm sure when we get to the session, we'll look at the total cost of the project and what kind of economic impact it's going to have in New Mexico," he said Tuesday.
    Richardson and Homans have been working with the state's congressional delegation to secure federal funds to cover the remaining balance.
    Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Richardson, said voters in southern New Mexico will be asked to consider a local options gross receipts tax to provide some of the funding.
    According to a study completed by New Mexico State University, the project will generate local spending of $1 billion, a payroll of $300 million and employment of 2,300 by the fifth year of operation.
    "This investment in economic development and high-wage jobs will create a new industry that will transform the economy in southern New Mexico," Richardson said through Gallegos.
    Virgin Galactic's stated goal has been to bring space travel to the public. It is one of several companies that foresee a future booming commercial space industry, offering everything from tourism to placing satellites into orbit.
    On Tuesday, Virgin Galactic said 38,000 people from 126 countries have paid a deposit of an undisclosed amount for a seat on a flight. About 100 core "founders" have paid the full $200,000 cost of a flight. The firm aims to begin flights in 2008 or early 2009, with the first flights launching from Mojave, Calif. It will move its operations to New Mexico in 2010, when the facility here is complete.
    Virgin Galactic earlier this year created a joint venture with famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan to build five spacecraft. Rutan designed SpaceShipOne, which nabbed last year's $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first private company to launch a manned, suborbital flight, then do it again within a week.
    Virgin Galactic officials have said they planned to build a resort or similar facility at or near its headquarters to house guests preparing for the flight.

E-MAIL Journal Staff Writer Andrew Webb