New Mexico Governor Seeks Advice on Spaceport America From Jack Schmitt

Former Apollo astronaut and U.S. Senator Harrison “Jack” Schmitt is poised to take a lead role in the administration of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. He is one of several astronauts providing advice to the new administration about the future of Spaceport America. And in a highly controversial move, the governor has nominated the conservative global warming skeptic to serve as secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that Schmitt has been providing input to Gov. Martinez’s Spaceport Review Team, which is reviewing the project’s status, financing and future. The review team, which includes leaders from the business and space communities, is receiving advice from a number of astronauts, including space shuttle commander Sid Gutierrez.

Although the Apollo 17 moon walker is well-known as a global warming skeptic and for his advocacy for mining lunar resources, it is not clear what his expertise is concerning space tourism and spaceport operations. After resigning from NASA, Schmitt served for one term in the U.S. Senate and then become an adjunct professor of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. My colleague Charles Lurio says that Schmitt has been an opponent of Spaceport America in the past. However, he was one of the 600 guests who attended the facility’s runway dedication in October.

[Editor’s Note: A reader has pointed out that Schmitt is on the Board of Directors for Orbital Sciences Corporation, a rocket builder that has proposed building a lifting-body spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit for NASA’s CCDev program.]

Gov. Martinez has called for an audit of spending on Spaceport America, which is under construction in the desert near Truth or Consequences. She says that she wants to ensure that officials are wisely spending money on the $210 million state-funded project, and that the facility can stand on its own financially in the future without major state support. The project was begun by Martinez’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Richardson.

What the audit might uncover is an interesting question. The new administration has made no charges of wrongdoing concerning Spaceport America.  However, Gov. Richardson’s administration was dogged by corruption charges, including a federal investigation — later dropped — of the governor for alleged “pay-to-play” schemes to steer contracts to political supporters and insiders.  (The case caused the governor to withdraw his name for consideration to serve as Commerce Secretary in the Obama Administration.) Various Richardson Administration officials and associates have come up on charges in a state that is viewed by critics as being riddled with corruption.

Martinez made cleaning up Sante Fe a key promise of her campaign. She began to follow through on her pledge on her first day:

Within minutes of taking the oath of office, Gov. Susana Martinez signed executive orders early Saturday to enhance public access to state records and remove potential roadblocks for federal investigators.

State agencies will not be allowed to deny public record requests by citing “executive privilege,” or keep correspondence between a state executive and other officials secret when discussing possible public policy, except when explicitly approved by Martinez.

State agencies have been ordered by the new governor to comply with any requests from investigators for federal agencies, even when those agencies do not have a subpoena.

Although Martinez did not cite the administration of her predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson, her orders deal with issues that arose in connection with media requests and federal pay-to-play investigations during the Richardson administration.

Earlier this week, the governor forced out New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Rick Homas, a political appointee of Gov. Richardson. Homans had campaigned to be kept on at his post, saying the project is entering a critical phase this year as construction nears an end and the operational phase begins. In his resignation letter, he urged the new governor to get fully behind the project, warning that without support from Sante Fe that the project could fall apart. Administration officials dismissed the concerns.

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.

Gov. Martinez has not named a successor to Homans, nor has she informed the NMSA board members about whether she will reappoint any of them. The new administration is forming a search committee to fill the executive director position that will include former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, Albuquerque businessman Sherman McCorkle, and Las Cruces businessman Tom Hutchinson. In the meantime, administration officials say the project will continue on.

Angela Heisel, spokesman for Economic Development secretary nominee Jon Barela, who will chair the Spaceport Authority, told the Albuquerque Journal, “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.”

An even more controversial — and from the state’s point of view, vital — decision is Gov. Martinez’s controversial nomination of Schmitt to serve as secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. She announced the decision in a press release:

After announcing the nomination, Governor Martinez stated, “Senator Schmitt’s diverse background gives him a wealth of knowledge and experience that will be helpful in guiding the responsible development and protection of New Mexico’s diverse natural resources. Harnessing and developing energy sources right here in New Mexico is critical to reviving our economy and creating jobs.”

After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1964, Schmitt earned his Air Force jet pilot wings in 1965 and Navy helicopter pilot wings in 1967. He was selected for NASA’s Scientist- Astronaut program in 1965. He served as Mission Scientist in support of the Apollo 11 mission and flew in space as part of the Apollo 17 mission. Schmitt landed on the Moon on December 11, 1972.

After his career at NASA, Schmitt was elected to the United States Senate in 1976 and served in office for six years as a member of the Commerce, Banking, Appropriations, Intelligence, and Ethics Committees. Sen. Schmitt received his B.A. from Caltech and has received numerous awards and recognitions for his public service and work as a scientist.

In response to his nomination, Sen. Schmitt said, “I am proud to continue my career of public service as secretary of the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department under Governor Martinez. I look forward to working with the Governor to enhance New Mexico’s potential to be a leader in energy and natural resource development.”

The position involves both encouraging the development of New Mexico’s natural resources and safeguarding them. A dismayed Democratic Party of New Mexico believes Schmitt will spend more time on the former:

In a clear sign that polluters in New Mexico will have free reign under her administration, Gov. Susana Martinez today nominated global warming denier and former astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt to head the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

On many occasions, Schmitt has scoffed at decades of sound scientific evidence and a mountain of research that validated the human causes of global climate change.

In one instance he told Fox News that the “CO2 scare is a red herring”, that the “global warming scare is being used as a political tool to increase government control over American lives, incomes and decision-making.”

“Martinez promised bold change and she’s bringing it in the form of an appointee at odds with the basic tenets of science and reason,” said DPNM Executive Director Scott Forrester. “This appointment is a clear signal to Martinez’s big-oil backers that the days of basic protections for New Mexicans’ air and drinking water are over.”

Martinez also recently fired the entire Environmental Improvement Board, paving the way for industrial polluters to have their way with New Mexico’s precious natural resources.

“Martinez has never said one word about how important it is to have clean air and water in our beautiful state and instead has spent her short time in office ripping down basic environmental protections for our citizens,” Forrester said. “These moves are either straight payback for her contributors or a blatant disregard for the importance of clean air and water – not only for the lives of New Mexicans, but for future economic development.”